My column in the Guardian:
The Australian maintenance, construction and detention centre company Transfield Services officially changed its name last month, to Broadspectrum. The firm claimed it was “a better representation of the company’s business”. Clearly there was an element of necessity too: the corporation’s founding members withdrew permission to use the Transfield name and logo over ongoing allegations of abuse at its facilities on Nauru and Manus Island in Papua New Guinea.
A name change isn’t likely to improve its public image, battered by never-ending stories of asylum seekers abused while in limbo.
One of the first rules of public relations is to take heat off a target by attempting to change the focus of controversy. Recall American private security firm Blackwater, embroiled in numerous scandals of employees killing innocent civilians in Iraq and elsewhere, first changing its name to Xe Services, then Academi. Blackwater founder Erik Prince left the US, moved to Abu Dhabi and today works with Chinese companies that financially benefit from the African resources boom.
In 2014, Academi became a division of Constellis Holdings, along with another private contractor, Triple Canopy. These descendants of Blackwater rake in cash from US government contracts, the years of scandals against its multiple owners and employees seemingly forgotten.
Broadspectrum will be hoping for similar success. Although profits were down 8% this year, a number of key shareholders were publicly opposed to its involvement in detention services. Some protested its recent AGM in Sydney.
The company looks set to continue a billion-dollar contract to run facilities on Nauru and Manus Island. As was the case for Blackwater and its descendents, it’s hard to imagine what would have to transpire for the federal government to sever its contract with the company.
Nonetheless, the growing push for divestment against Broadspectrum is an encouraging sign that companies profiting from offshore misery could suffer serious harm. Shen Narayanasamy, executive director of No Business in Abuse, rightly argues that, “you don’t deal with abuse by changing your name, you deal with abuse by stopping the abuse. No amount of spin changes Transfield’s complicity in abuse. Transfield/Broadspectrum doesn’t have to sign a five-year contract to continue profiting from the abuse of vulnerable people. That’s their decision.”
There’s no reason, apart from corporate Stockholm Syndrome, to defend the actions of Transfield. A recent op-ed by PhD candidate Carly Gordyn, published in SBS Online, made embarrassing excuses for the firm (“The contractors are doing only what they are being asked to do”) and insisted that refugee activists should principally target the government, which implements the detention policy.
Surely a strategy of highlighting official and corporate complicity is the most logical idea. During my years of investigating the role of British multinational Serco, both on the Australian mainland and Christmas Island, leaked internal documents proved that company management was price gouging, under-training staff and instructing regional managers not to report problems to avoid government fines.
And IHMS, the company that provides healthcare for Australia’s asylum seekers in detention, admitted in documents published earlier this year by Guardian Australia that “inevitable” fraud would be committed as it tried to meet government standards.
Of course, one company can be replaced with another with relative ease if the authorities are determined to outsource their responsibilities.
The time is ripe for a vociferous divestment campaign against Serco in Australia for its past and present activities. The firm is having financial troubles and is economically vulnerable to shareholder pressure. Broadspectrum will face a growing public backlash as long as it’s involved in the privatised detention business, although it’s unlikely to collapse from that alone.
Lessons from other states prove that this is only half the battle (for example, European detention firms are making money from the current refugee crisis) and that uncovering the financial and ideological ties that have led to the modern trend of outsourcing asylum seekers to corporations is the far larger and more difficult battle. It means challenging an economic model that places a monetary value on every human being.