Serco’s record on managing human beings far from ideal

While yet another detention centre in Australia, Villawood, run by British multinational Serco, is today facing refugee riots (and what do we expect, locking people up for months if not years? No mental trauma or anger?), earlier this week ABC TV’s 7.30 tackled the role of Serco. The story wasn’t bad (overly focused on under-staffing rather than the litany of human rights breaches by the company) but it’s a start. More, please:

LEIGH SALES, PRESENTER: More questions about how Australia’s detention centres are being run and whether there are enough properly-trained staff to handle the growing number of asylum seekers.

Serco is the outside company which manages the nation’s detention facilities and it’s currently under investigation by both the Commonwealth Ombudsman and a Government-appointed review. Those inquiries were sparked by last month’s riots and breakouts on Christmas Island.

National affairs correspondent Heather Ewart takes a look at the pressures on detention centres and their workers, including new allegations that staff are being pressured not to report troublesome incidents.

HEATHER EWART, REPORTER: Detention centres in Australia are a growth business. When the large multinational corporation Serco signed on to manage them just under two years ago, there were five centres with around 1,000 detainees. These days, that number has ballooned to almost 6,500, housed at 23 sites around the country. Serco finds itself under greater scrutiny than ever before.

KAYE BERNARD, CHRISTMAS ISLAND WORKERS UNION: The increasing numbers of asylum seekers that have been stuffed into a poor facilities run by Serco who have proven themself not to be able to manage what they’ve been paid millions of dollars to do needs to be clearly looked at.

VICTORIA MARTIN-IVERSON, REFUGEE ACTION NETWORK: Look, we know from Christmas Island Detention Centre that there’s been regular and fairly consistent levels of profound understaffing. We see dramatic staff turnover at all the centres.

SCOTT PRASSER, AUST. CATHOLIC UNI.: I think the problem is Serco’s got a reputation for running prisons, and a good one, but these are very different types of detention centres.

LOUISE NEWMAN, MONASH UNI.: We’re in a very precarious situation, a high-risk situation, where we’re going to see, and unless something changes, increasing rates of self-harm and protest, and sadly, even suicidal behaviour.

HEATHER EWART: Recent riots and breakouts on Christmas Island have put Serco under the spotlight. It’s only just regained control of the centre, after federal police had to take over. Now, the Ombudsman and a government appointed review are examining what went wrong and that sparked a flurry of complaints that the problems are not just confined to Christmas Island.

VICTORIA MARTIN-IVERSON: At the centres that I regularly visit, there is always brand new staff there that are undertrained.

KAYE BERNARD: I speak to officers and have counselled officers that have come off night shift where they’ve had to undertake what’s called “cut downs”. Those cut downs involve people attempting to hang themself.

VICTORIA MARTIN-IVERSON: I get reports that Curtin Detention Centre that people are now self-harming on a daily basis.

LOUISE NEWMAN: I think Serco have particularly difficult job and in many ways it’s a job that was slightly unexpected and maybe it’s fair to say that not many staff have had direct training or experience in some of these issues.

HEATHER EWART: There have been five suicides at detention centres since last September and an undisclosed number of failed attempts. Under its contract with the Department of Immigration, Serco is required to provide client support staff with a six-week training induction course. The Human Rights Commission has documented this doesn’t always occur.

VICTORIA MARTIN-IVERSON: For example, the report on Leonora found that although every staff member working at that facility for families, and very high needs families, are meant to have the psychological support program training, they found that not one single staffer had had that training.

SANDI LOGAN, IMMIGRATION DEPT. SPOKESMAN: We’re confident that Serco understands our expectations according to the contract. We’re confident that they do provide qualified and trained staff.

HEATHER EWART: But that may not always be the case. Serco is on a contract understood to amount to $370 million a year. With growing pressures on the system, it’s been subcontracting in some areas to a company called MSS Security. In Darwin last October, local Justice Department investigators raided the company with reported evidence of at least 30 unlicensed guards, including foreign students employed at detention facilities.

VICTORIA MARTIN-IVERSON: They were uncertified, and some of them, it was revealed, were alleged to have not even had the working-with-children clearances.

SANDI LOGAN: My understanding is there have been some issues around some contracted staff and their eligibility in fact to work, whether they were on the appropriate visas.

HEATHER EWART: Serco can be fined by the Government if it’s considered to have breached its contractual obligations and recent sanctions are believed to amount to around $4 million for the main Christmas Island facility alone. The local union claims this is a powerful incentive not to report troublesome incidents, including self-harm.

KAYE BERNARD: They’ve certainly instructed some of our members that they will not – they will not tolerate them reporting incidents as they’re required to do over their contract with DIAC. And if you do report incidents, you get a window seat – you’ll get flown off the island. And that’s a real concern to me.

SANDI LOGAN: I’m not aware of that allegation. If in fact that’s being made, that’s a serious allegation. It’s one that should be addressed to Serco in the first instance.

HEATHER EWART: In a statement to 7.30, Serco strongly denied the allegation, but said if there was any evidence of such a practice, it would immediately investigate. In response to claims of under-staffing and poor training, it said Serco’s training program met its obligations. However, this was a growing and increasingly complex contract and staffing levels were sometimes dependent on the stock available.

Remote locations like Christmas Island with limited accommodation do make it difficult to attract and keep staff. A report from one manager last year suggested the main North-West Point facility at Christmas Island was at least 15 staff members short per day, and that was before the number of detainees had risen to 1,000 above capacity.

The managers that they’ve had, Serco have had attracted to that centre have left quickly because they were unable to run it in any professional sense, given the resources that – the limited resources that Serco were willing to expend.

SANDI LOGAN: The contract that the Department of Immigration and Citizenship has with Serco doesn’t stipulate a staff-to-client ratio. What it does require Serco to do is to meet certain standards.

SCOTT PRASSER: If you decide to put a detention centre in a remote area for all sorts of constitutional, legal reasons, the other side of that coin is how you’re going to staff it, manage it, control it.

HEATHER EWART: There have been five regional managers, some in an acting capacity at Christmas Island, since Serco started management there in September 2009. The latest from the UK lasted a matter of weeks. But Serco claims it has a consistent senior management structure.

The Minister for Immigration Chris Bowen was unavailable for comment on this and other related issues because of the review of Serco’s handling of the Christmas Island crisis. The contract with Serco is commercial-in-confidence, and it’s not clear what amounts to a breach of its terms.

VICTORIA MARTIN-IVERSON: There’s certainly a culture of silence and there is certainly a culture of secrecy. Many aspects of Serco’s contracts are secret. Many aspects of what goes on in detention centres are secret.

SANDI LOGAN: The tradition of these sorts of contracts with service providers with the Commonwealth has been, in this department’s case, that they remain commercial-in-confidence.

SCOTT PRASSER: Immigration is an area which is often an emotive area and I think at the end of the day, transparency will lead to a better outcome.

HEATHER EWART: The government review will report mid-year. At this stage, there’s no plan to extend its terms of reference to management of other detention facilities.

Text and images ©2024 Antony Loewenstein. All rights reserved.

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