The drive by governments to privatise what are usually key governmental functions, such as refugee processing and detention, reform and prison, and health care is one that is being mirrored around the world — with the big winners being transglobal/multinational corporations.
In his book Profits of Doom: How Vulture Capitalism is Swallowing the World Antony Loewenstein provides case studies on how corporations such as Serco and G4S make a profit from activities that were traditionally provided by the State. In the opening chapter, “Curtin Immigration Detention Centre – Cash for Care”, Antony visits the RAAF base, once referred to as “hell on earth“ and the place where the Department of Immigration and Citizenship (DIAC) have opened a refugee camp to house mostly male detainees. It’s an interesting glimpse into the bureaucratic processes of running detention centres that the vast majority of the Australian population will never have to think about — yet the effects of such transglobal companies ripple throughout society. The chapter details how a corporation such as Serco can manage to run multiple detention centres in Australia with relative autonomy and transparency and segues nicely into the second chapter, “Christmas Island: Prison in the Pacific”, where he witnesses a boat of refugees heading to shore.
Loewenstein devotes a substantial part of the book to Papua New Guinea (PNG), recently in the news because of the Australian government’s decision to send asylum seekers to Manus Island. It’s obvious that the Australian decision is the least of their problems when its natural resources are being plundered in the name of big business — as well as by states competing for power in the region. The ability to get up close and personal with characters from grassroots organisations to provincial governors means that Loewenstein is able to present a different viewpoint to that of the prominent happy and carefree images of PNG that grace corporate publications. It’s easy to see just how applicable the term ‘disaster capitalism’ is to the country and easier still to see the type of influence it will have in terms of real socio-economic benefit to the majority of the inhabitants of PNG (sadly, very little).
Of note too are the chapters on Afghanistan and Pakistan, and Haiti where the line between contractors and governments get mixed, and where for the most part the law becomes blurred and the need for transparency flies out the window. In Afghanistan, the US State Department awarded contracts worth over one billion to DynCorp in a bid to build up local security forces, while in Haiti 500 million of the 1billion in humanitarian aid was handled by the US Department of Defense — this was also directed to contractors. The book’s case studies have uncovered the covert players in what appears to be a game to control States — and Loewenstein’s arguments that the erosion of democracy is being met with relatively little fanfare or care by the world media becomes stronger and stronger as the reader progresses.
Profits of Doom: How Vulture Capitalism is Swallowing the World is written in a conversational narrative and this lends weight to the book as a whole. Loewenstein is interested in trying to tell the stories of those people involved in, caught up in, living in, experiencing and struggling against massive corporations and their ideologies, and juxtapositioning this against the organisations that seek to control most aspects of governmental functions.
It is a confronting read but one that should be on everyone’s list, lest you are aware of who really controls the purse strings around the world.
This is new positive news, if the outsourcing obsessed British government takes it seriously. Serco, G4S and a range of other vulture capitalists need to be challenged on their woeful human rights records (via the Financial Times):
Security companies G4S and Serco will have to go through a process of “corporate renewal” if they are to be considered for future government contracts after having overcharged the taxpayer for electronic tagging services, the justice secretary has warned.
Chris Grayling announced last month that he was referring G4S to the Serious Fraud Office and subjecting Serco to a forensic audit after it emerged that the contractors had been billing the government for tracking the movements of offenders who had moved abroad, returned to prison or had even died. But even before the government has completed its subsequent audit of big contracts held by the companies, Mr Grayling called for these security companies to “purge themselves” of the staff responsible for the tagging fiasco.
“I think both companies are going to have to go through a process of what I would describe as corporate renewal if they’re going to work with government in the future,” he told the Financial Times.
“We will want both companies to demonstrate that they have purged themselves,” the justice secretary added. “I want to see both companies able to demonstrate that they have addressed the internal cultural issues that could enable this [overcharging] to happen in order for me personally to have confidence in future that we can work with them.”
Over the past decade, G4S and Serco have been the sole contractors for electronic monitoring, winning deals worth a total of £700m. Mr Grayling said last month he had “no evidence” of dishonesty by either of the contractors. Some of the MoJ’s staff, suspected of having been aware of billing irregularities as far back as 2008, are currently undergoing a “disciplinary process” as a result of their lack of oversight.
The justice secretary emphasised that when his department goes out to tender for new probation services, it will learn from past mistakes and no longer rely on just one or two big players to provide the bulk of services.
“I am very keen that what we see emerge . . . is not a small number of big companies dominating this world,” he said. “I want a mixed supplier base . . . there will be clear limits on the amount of business, the amount of the market that any one organisation can have.”
In this extract from his recently-released Profits of Doom, Antony Loewenstein visits the remote and jealously guarded Curtin Immigration Detention Centre.
It’s a 30-minute drive through the desert from Derby to the Curtin Air Base. A number of signs warn us to turn back because it is ‘Private Property’. We approach the first checkpoint, where a logo on a fence with a forward arrow reads ‘Serco’. Even here in the Kimberley, Serco branding is slapped on infrastructure.
A dark-skinned man asks us for ID and the Serco entry forms that we faxed to Curtin a few days earlier – we were asked to list our professions and the names of the detainees we want to visit. I open my window and feel a rush of hot air. It is close to 40 degrees Celsius. We are allowed to proceed.
Curtin is surrounded by scrubby desert as far as the eye can see. I can’t imagine a more isolated place to be detained. Demountables are scattered beside the road near the car park and high barbed-wire fences surround the detention compound. We can see new houses being constructed nearby, and a freshly laid concrete pathway leads to the main entrance. The last years have seen the construction at the centre of gymnasiums, religious rooms and classrooms.
The Serco sign hanging over the reception area reads, ‘Welcome to Curtin IDC’. Staff, including a subcontractor from MSS Security, smile as we enter the heavily air-conditioned room. They ask to see our faxed Serco forms so they can confirm they received the documents at least 24 hours before the visit. Caroline says that, uncharacteristically, a Serco manager from Curtin rang her a few days ago and said they were looking forward to welcoming us. It was an unprecedented move, without any discernible reason behind it. ‘It’s impossible to understand how this system truly works’, Caroline routinely tells me during our time together.
Serco posters and signs advertising the company are ubiquitous in the reception area. They display the smiling faces of happy staff and multicultural imagery that includes a Muslim imam. A colour brochure emblazoned with four grinning faces from various racial backgrounds sits on a small table near some lockers.
‘Bringing service to life’ is the company’s motto. The pamphlet says that Serco ‘promotes the inherent dignity of people in detention in line with the Australian government’s new immigration detention values’.
A number of other pieces of Serco literature are scattered around reception. ‘Visitor Conditions of Entry’ states that there are three visiting periods every day, including between 6 p.m. and 8 p.m., but also says that arrival after 5 p.m. will not be permitted. There are dozens of rules and regulations on the sheet, including: ‘Respect the privacy and dignity of all people in the centre’. It’s a noble goal, but one that staff routinely breach, detainees later tell me.
We are given keys for a locker in which to store our personal items. I am not allowed to carry a camera or a mobile phone, but I can bring a pen and notepad. I am surprised. I have been told it’s common for journalists to be denied even these basics here. Usually a cap and bottled water suffice.
The site’s operation manager, who is decked out in the Serco uniform of shirt, shorts and black shoes, says he’ll take us to a holding area to wait for the refugees we’ve asked to see. Normally, Caroline, who has been to Curtin many times before, meets detainees under a large tree inside the compound, but we’re informed that this isn’t possible today. No reason is given.
We enter the centre and walk near the perimeter fence. We come to a large metal gate, 4 metres high, and stand there silently in the soaring heat. The gate slowly opens to reveal a narrow no-man’s-land – 150 metres of earth bookended by fences. There’s an eerie silence in the compound. It’s mid-afternoon and it’s simply too hot for anyone to be outside at this time of the day.
We walk along dusty paths for five minutes, moving through locked gates that require authorisation via walkie-talkie to open. There are a few male asylum seekers behind a nearby fence, defying the heat, but we aren’t allowed to go near them. They wave and we reciprocate.
The banality of the process is dehumanising. This is no different to a high-security prison in a remote area where escape is close to impossible. The aim is clearly to make detainees feel isolated, cut off from the millions of Australians who have no idea, or who don’t care, about what is being done in their name.
We finally enter the holding area. The Serco guard accompanying us points out the TV and DVD player in the room and says to ‘use it if you like’. A DVD case for the Jackie Chan movie Rush Hour 3 sits on a low cabinet. Tea, coffee and hot water are available, and there are fridges with ‘Staff Only’ signs. The air-conditioning is so effective I start to feel a chill. The room is anodyne, resembling a claustrophobic airport holding cell.
While a few male Serco staff sit nearby, looking bored, a number of refugees from Sri Lanka and Afghanistan warmly welcome us. They are all men in their twenties and they include a few Hazara from Afghanistan who have recently achieved refugee status and shortly will be released into the Australian community. As Caroline and I start talking to them, I see a young Serco guard washing his hands with disinfectant – he had just shaken the hands of the detainees.
Two Tamil men, Agilan and Ajinth, both of whom speak good English, have been in detention for 19 months and 22 months, respectively. They both wear silver studs in their ears and one has a trendy haircut, with a partly shaved head. Agilan has some family in Germany, where his father lives, but a sister and his daughter remain in Colombo. Detention centre food soon comes up as an issue. Both men find the food very bland and they desperately want to be able to cook their own ingredients with spices, but it’s something they can only do covertly.
I ask Agilan and Ajinth about their treatment by Serco staff. Some are very kind, they say, while others tell them to go back to their home countries. They tell me that Serco has organized a cricket series with the Derby cricket team. Their outings include the old Derby jail, which we all think is strange because the men are already in detention. They also tell us that Serco staff learn swear words from refugees and curse each other in various languages.
We talk about the reasons they left Sri Lanka, mainly because Tamils still face widespread discrimination there, and why they can’t go back – they would face imprisonment, interrogation and possibly torture if they did. We also discuss the stultifying boredom of doing nothing day after day.
Caroline and I chat to the refugees for two hours, with Serco staff constantly looking at us. The detainees seemed to like the distraction of different company, and there was some flirty playfulness with Caroline. There are 1000 men in detention here and only a few female guards. In 2013, the federal government brought refugee children and families to Curtin into a section called ‘Alternative Place of Detention’. In a further Orwellian move in May 2013, the Federal Parliament legislated to remove the Australian mainland from its migration zone, meaning that any asylum seekers arriving on the mainland could be sent to offshore facilities in Nauru or Papua New Guinea.
In July 2013, the policy under the new but old Prime Minister Kevin Rudd worsened. No asylum seekers arriving by boat to Australia would ever be allowed to settle there, instead being transferred directly to Papua New Guinea and indefinite detention in terrible conditions. British multinational G4S, already running Manus Island detention centre with daily reports of rape and abuse, would be licking their lips at the prospect of Australian plans to massively expand detention facilities.
When we leave the compound, the refugees come as far as they can with us, down to the locked gate, before taking a dusty road to their cabins while we backtrack to the detention centre entrance. As we walk slowly with our Serco guard, who looks about thirty, I ask about his life. He says he has a child in Perth and misses home. He’s on the six-weeks-on, three-weeks-off shift, living in Derby. ‘It’s good money’, he says, and admits that ‘this job is alright’, but he avoids sharing his views about the refugees.
We pass a small oval around which a few bearded men in tracksuit tops and shorts are running. The weather is cooler than when we arrived, but it’s still humid. On another small field alongside our path, twenty or so men play soccer. Without the high fences, guards and the desert, the scene could be taking place anywhere in suburban Australia.
As we prepare to leave, the magic sunset hour arrives and the sun drapes its last blistering light over the detention centre.
The rate of incarceration of Indigenous Australians is higher per capita than it was for blacks living in apartheid South Africa.
The Australian Institute of Criminology released figures this year that confirm the problem. One in four are behind bars and the over-representation of Indigenous people in West Australian jails is the highest of any indigenous group in the OECD.
It’s a national shame that barely registers in the mainstream media, even though many are warehoused by Serco, the British multinational, in places such as Acadia prison outside Perth. Michael Stutchbury, the former Economics Editor of The Australian and now editor of The Financial Review, wrote in 2011 that this facility should be a “potential model for public prisons”. Privatise the lot was the mantra and screw the human cost.
Australia is following the failed American model. Although 2012 figures found that the prison population decreased there for the third year in a row, African-Americans remained disproportionately affected. On current trends, one in three black males born today can expect to spend some time in jail during their lifetimes.
This is akin to modern slavery, writes US writer Michelle Alexander in her incendiary book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colourblindness. It is “the rebirth of a caste-like system in the United States, one that has resulted in millions of African Americans locked behind bars and then relegated to a permanent second-class status—denied the very rights supposedly won in the Civil Rights Movement”.
This is no accident and is fueled by the private firms running the countless prisons across America. Private prisons lobby state and federal politicians to ensure a set number of immigrants and other “illegals” are kept behind bars and profits are guaranteed at an agreed rate.
This is vulture capitalism of the crudest kind.
One of the key reasons I’ve spent the last three years writing my new book (and forthcoming documentary) Profits of Doom is to document how the corporation has become more powerful than the state. I’ve visited Afghanistan and Pakistan to reveal the ways in which the US and its allies have privatised war-making since 9/11 and caused abuses on a massive scale.
Papua New Guinea, despite receiving more than half a billion dollars of Australian aid annually, remains mired in corruption and a desperate resource curse. Australian firms such as Rio Tinto are keen to return to mining in Bougainville despite causing environmental and human carnage in the 1980s and 90s.
US neighbour Haiti, more than three years after a devastating earthquake, is refused true independence from Washington and forced to agree to building South Korean run sweatshops making clothes for Kmart and Walmart.
In Australia, successive governments have outsourced the management of asylum seekers to corporations such as G4S and Serco (the latter now has more than $1.86 billion worth of contracts with Canberra). A senior Serco whistle-blower gave me internal documents that revealed endemic under-staffing and under-training of guards in remote facilities. The source detailed the culture of a firm whose record in Britain is routinely condemned by government reports and yet this has little or no effect on receiving further contracts.
This is neo-liberal ideology without consideration of the human factor.
On the face of it this may all sound hopeless and I routinely receive (including during an online conversation with the Guardian last week) questions about any possible solutions. I believe there are ways to both re-establish political trust with the voting public and improve services for the population.
- Politicians should be forced to explain how privatising essential services benefits the general public and not just corporations with the most effective connections.
- The media should not accept overly restrictive access to detention centres and simply refuse to play along with the Department of Immigration and Citizenship when they don’t humanise the lives of asylum seekers.
- There must be greater investment in publicly funded health and education as we should not follow the British push towards for-profit schools.
- We should not outsource water, natural resources, war, aid and detention centres to the cheapest bidder. It rarely if ever delivers anything other than a shoddy job.
Our politicians should stop taking lobbying trips to Britain – yes, Western Australian Treasurer,Troy Buswell, lover of Serco in the UK, I’m looking at you – and acknowledge that “efficiency” isn’t best served by selling key assets to foreign or local, private interests.
When I visited Christmas Island in late 2011 (researching my book Profits of Doom), the Australian Immigration Department and Serco heavily restricted access (though I finally obtained entry on my last day). This was supposedly for asylum seeker “privacy” but in reality is a policy aimed to not humanise the faces and lives of refugees.
Al Jazeera English gets access but the images are largely useless and there’s no sense that a) the place is run by a British multinational and b) the sheer scale of the place and its status as essentially a harshly run prison. Media organisations should be careful accepting “access” when it arguably contributes little to the story. Then again, showing something of the camp is perhaps better than nothing:
The following appears in the wonderful publication Right Now, an online site dedicated to human rights:
In his new book, Profits of Doom, independent Australian journalist Antony Loewenstein travels to Curtin Immigration Detention Centre and Christmas Island to investigate the reality of Australia’s, notoriously secretive, privatised detention facilities for asylum seekers. In this excerpt, Loewenstein is on Christmas Island (CI) but so far the Department of Immigration and Citizenship has denied him access to the detention facility on the island. But by chance, he witnesses for the first time the arrival of an overcrowded boat carrying asylum seekers towards the shore.
By Antony Loewenstein
It’s another hot and humid day on CI and I still haven’t gained access to the detention facility. But I am about to talk to some of the detainees.
A few days earlier I met Joan Kelleher, a sister who works with the Christian aid organisation Australian Mercy, and a resident of CI since March 2010. She is also a daily visitor to the refugees in detention. Sister Joan is a true humanitarian. She’s opposed to mandatory detention and takes asylum seekers with fragile mental states on brief excursions to do activities such as cooking and swimming. She told me that she oscillates between despair and inspiration, but unfortunately feels more of the former. Then she recalled a Tamil man who has been inside the CI detention centre for 26 months—he has been granted refugee status but is waiting to receive security clearance. “I’m inspired by those who survive what this system throws at them”, she said. “And those who stay strong.”
Sister Joan then told me that she would be taking four Afghan Hazara refugees to the beach for a BBQ in a few days time, and suggested I come along.
I arrive to find the sister and the quartet of men wading barefoot in shallow water—one man dips his entire body underwater, fully clothed. It’s a beautiful day and the colour of the water alternates between green and blue. There are a few fishermen, and some boats on the horizon, but little else. The men are aged in their thirties and forties. They’re all married with children, their families still in Afghanistan and Pakistan. They’ve all been rejected for refugee status twice by DIAC and remain in limbo in Australia, claiming they would be injured or killed if they were sent home (bombings in early 2013 that targeted the Hazara people in Quetta, Pakistan, where all the men have family, indicate the continuing threat). They appear pleased to see me, a new person to talk with.
The men collect different-coloured rocks to send to their children. One man, Abdul, can speak English and tells me that he has been in detention for 22 months, in Darwin and on CI. He takes six different antidepressants daily. His left eye is bloodshot, and he shows me injuries on his body that he claims were inflicted by the Taliban. He smiles as we talk, but says he is sad because he is unsure what will happen to him, and that he’s never given any definite information on his case, including a time line for when it will be resolved, from DIAC or Serco.
I talk to all the men but with varying degrees of success because of language difficulties. They say they want to be allowed to live in community detention, a policy implemented by Labor in 2012 that permits asylum seekers to live freely, but with minimal welfare payments and no work rights. It’s better than being in a high-security prison, but it still leaves them in a state of limbo. We discuss marriage, and they find it amusing that I am thirty-seven but still unmarried, with no children. They talk about the difficult existence of a detainee—the monotony of daily life, the lack of excursions or visitors, the humid weather.
Sister Joan has brought some sausages, rolls, onions and soft drinks. The men share the cooking duties, using the BBQs on the foreshore. It’s a change from the daily tedium, they say, clearly enjoying this brief excursion. They show gratitude towards the sister.
From our lunch spot, I can see the island’s one-time governor’s residence, which overlooks the harbour of Flying Fish Cove. Near the house is a small memorial to the SIEV X tragedy, commemorating a boat that sank on its way from Sumatra to Christmas Island in 2001, killing 353 people. The names of the children who died are written on small rocks.
Britain handed CI to Australia in 1957. Forty years later, CI and the Cocos Islands started being managed as the Australian Indian Ocean Territories, under the auspices of an administrator who lives on CI. After my excursion with Sister Joan, I go to a spacious office near the pier where asylum seekers are brought ashore, to interview the current Australian Government administrator of CI and the Cocos Islands, Brian Lacy.
Lacy is a former industrial court judge from Melbourne who is serving a two-year appointment on CI. He’s affable, generally sympathetic to refugees and not an advocate of mandatory detention. But he does praise Serco for helping the CI community and being a good corporate citizen. He receives twice-weekly briefings from Canberra involving “intelligence” related to asylum seekers on CI, and says he’s pleased that the numbers of detainees are down (though the figure wildly oscillates depending on boat arrivals). He appears to have been blindsided by the riots in 2011, but says he is committed to being better informed about the situation inside the detention centre. However, he’s only visited the CI centre once, on a guided tour, when he first arrived on the island.
Lacy’s role isn’t overly political and he constantly stresses that his aim is to bring benefits to CI and the Cocos Islands. He is concerned about the effects of the detention centre on CI, including the disparity in pay between local and temporary workers, and the impact of a high-security prison on a small island. He has asked Canberra for more resources to support the place, particularly more consultation and expanded facilities. It’s unclear how successful this will be—it is a common complaint from locals that the federal government is more interested in funding infrastructure that houses new boat arrivals rather than supports residents.
Lacy tells me he’s hired “consultants” to find ways to promote CI as a tourist destination, as it’s now primarily known as a detention island, in Australia and internationally. His job is unenviable.
Sadly, the refugees are about to be politicised, privatised and silenced by bureaucracy.
I’m walking back to my hotel when something out at sea attracts my attention, and I stop at the exact spot from which CI residents watched helplessly in December 2010 as refugees drowned in heavy seas. I can see a visibly overcrowded boat on the horizon, and it’s heading towards shore. Two large Australian ships and a few smaller vessels shadow the boat. A few people gather, filming and photographing the boat. Those around me, a mix of tourists and locals, are largely unsympathetic towards the incoming refugees. One says, “I bet they’ll find wads of cash in their pockets”. Two older couples say they are sick of so many boats arriving in Australia.
This is a regular occurrence on CI but it’s the first time I’ve seen it. It’s difficult not to feel sympathy for people who have sailed across dangerous waters to get to someplace safe.
I go down to the jetty, where several dozen DIAC, Serco, police and Customs officials, as well as interpreters and ambulance staff, await the arrival of the refugees. A number of CI residents and tourists are there too, and are mostly middle-aged or older. The ones I talk to all express opposition to refugees. They are “illegals” who might come and “take over”, like “what’s happening in parts of Europe”. One person says, “They should be pushed back to Indonesia, where they will be safe. Why are they coming to Australia? What if terrorists are on the boats? We have poverty here and people living in bad conditions on CI, but they come and are treated better than Australians”. I mention Serco and ask whether anyone cares that a private company is making money from greater numbers of refugee arrivals. One older man says he feels uncomfortable about it, while a tourist isn’t aware of the fact.
The refugee boat stops around 200 metres from the shore and a speedboat races out to meet it. After a short while, around fourteen refugees wearing life jackets are brought to the jetty, then more are brought ashore. I see a woman in a wheelchair (I’m later told she is pregnant), an exceptionally tall man, a young girl, a woman wearing a hijab, and a teenage boy. They are Middle Eastern in appearance. They’re frisked and their bags are collected.
Watching this piece of theatre, I’m moved. I don’t know the refugees or their stories, whether they are genuine or not, but after hearing little but demonisation of them for years, the first contact between asylum seekers and the government strikes me as a deeply human exchange. Sadly, the refugees are about to be politicised, privatised and silenced by bureaucracy.
The process on the jetty looks orderly and the various officials treat the asylum seekers with respect. I hear one woman near me say, “See how they always come with men and boys first, and then bring their families later?” As I walk back to my car, I start talking to a local Chinese man who is watching the proceedings. “They people, all bad Muslims”, he tells me. I ask him how he knows they are Muslims. “I’ve heard they are, and they’re not like the others.”
Arriving back at my hotel, I see an Australian ship alongside the refugee boat. The latter is to be set on fire and destroyed. I’ve been told the oil from such fires often floats to shore, damaging the coastline.
I search online for an official government statement about the latest CI boat arrival. Home Affairs Minister Brendan O’Connor sent out a press release around the time the boat was sighted, referring to a “suspected irregular entry vessel” with around 116 people onboard. The release stated that the “border protection command” had taken the refugees to land and begun processing them. But the statement is wrong. The refugees were still being brought to shore when it was issued, as I had seen with my own eyes. The press release is a template—the writer only needs to change the number of sighted asylum seekers. It’s as predictable as kabuki theatre.
Profits of Doom is available at Melbourne University Press.
My following piece appears in the Melbourne Age today:
In 2005, Labor’s then immigration spokesman Tony Burke said detention centres for asylum seekers must never be run by private companies. “You shouldn’t have a situation”, he said, “where the level of supervision and the standard of care has anything to do with the private profits of an offshore company.”
It was a position Labor took to the 2007 election, pledging to place the nation’s centres back in public hands. The promise didn’t last long.
In 2009, Kevin Rudd’s government announced that British multinational Serco, a service-providing company dogged by human rights abuse scandals at home, had been awarded the $370 million contract to house the relatively few refugees then in detention.
Four years later, Serco controls more than 20 centres across the nation and more than 10,500 people. The contract, constantly evolving with increasing boat arrivals, is now worth more than $1.86 billion. Other companies, such as G4S, Toll Group, Lohberger Engineering, Decmil and Canstruct are revelling in Labor’s pain. Stopping the boats will be bad for business.
One of the least examined aspects of refugee policy is the companies making a killing from the government’s failure to humanely process asylum seekers. John Howard accelerated outsourcing to the point where dozens of former detainees received compensation after being assaulted or psychologically damaged, while guards still experience post-traumatic stress because they never received appropriate training.
I read almost daily emails from former local employees of some of the world’s largest private prison companies. They tell me about their nightmares and say their managers during the early 2000s would allow detention centres to descend into crisis to force Canberra’s hand and guarantee more funds to ”manage” the situation. ”The budget for reassuring Australians is bottomless,” journalist David Marr has written.
The idea that private industry is more efficient and cheaper than the public sector is an illusion.
It is adherence to neo-liberal ideology that explains why Australia doesn’t want governments in the business of public services, war, mining and increasingly aid. The state is bad. Private enterprise is good.
Corporate lobbyists grease the wheels – witness the long line of Australian politicians on ”study tours” to Britain being wined and dined by Serco, which hopes to persuade them to privatise yet another hospital or juvenile justice program – and the public is left short-changed, with lower standards of care.
During the writing of my new book, Profits of Doom, I spent time with a senior Serco manager who was disgusted with what he saw as his employer exploiting the government’s troubles over asylum seekers. He gave me internal documents that point to price-gouging, especially on ferrying refugees to different camps, understaffing, undertraining and disturbing levels of self-harm by detainees. In one month alone, January 2012, Serco made 65 per cent profit at Northern Territory’s Wickham Point, more than $2.5 million. British Serco management has a ”colonial attitude” towards Australia, the source said, and make little effort to understand local conditions.
The company is rarely fined by the government for breaches because, I was told, managers are instructed not to report problems. The bottom line is all that matters. The contract between Serco and the government – I’ve seen one of the latest versions – indicates there are few formal mechanisms that are policed to ensure an accurate reporting regime.
The contract between Canberra and G4S, the British company running Manus Island, is even vaguer and dictates no independent audits. Former G4S manager Rod St George recently told SBS TV’s Dateline there had been rapes and physical abuses in the camps.
Yet the profits keep coming. Decmil won a $137 million contract in June to build a centre on Manus. Guess who will be rapt by the prospect of housing thousands more detainees if Rudd’s ”PNG solution” is fully implemented?
My Serco source told me recently that both the company and the Immigration Department were in ”chaos” and ”can’t handle the boats”. Yet the corporation is reducing staff to ”keep profits high”, he said.
Serco says the allegations against it are unwarranted and untrue. It denies understaffing and undertraining, and says ”bad apples” among staff are disciplined or fired and that asylum seekers are treated with compassion.
In Britain, the Ministry of Justice recently found ”serious concerns” over G4S and Serco-run prisons and urged a ”halt to the privatisation of justice”. In another English case almost 10 years ago, a 100-kilogram guard employed by G4S fatally restrained a 40-kilogram boy. Rather than dismissing the man, the company promoted him to health and safety manager for G4S’ children’s services.
My Serco source says managers are routinely moved, especially at the ”most difficult centres” such as Darwin and Christmas Island. ”They’re told if they get abatements [fines from Canberra], they’ll be fired”.
In Australia, Labor and the Liberals are committed to engorging private companies in their war against asylum seekers, but accountability is close to non-existent – ask any journalist trying to get straight answers from Serco, G4S or the Immigration Department and they’ll tell you the system is gamed to obfuscate.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Refugees aren’t products to be packaged at the lowest prices and sold to the highest bidder. Today, however, the only people benefiting from detainees’ misery are the corporations warehousing them.
Journalist Antony Loewenstein is the author of Profits of Doom: How Vulture Capitalism is Swallowing the World (MUP)
Australian journalist Antony Loewenstein has travelled to Papua New Guinea, Afghanistan, Haiti and around Australia to report on a growing trend of ‘vulture capitalism’ where the political and economic culture encourages ‘corporate vultures to swoop down upon the carcasses of weakened institutions and industries’. Vulture capitalism produces privatised and for-profit prisons, refugee detention centres, militaries and disaster reconstruction projects. The corporations that run these ventures lack transparency and accountability, and many people are unaware of the power they wield.
I was certainly unaware of the extent to which Australia’s refugee detention centres are privatised. It costs the government more money to keep an asylum seeker in detention than in the community, reports Loewenstein, and it is in the profit-making interest of the private companies running the centres to hold people for as long as possible. Loewenstein also exposes the power of the fossil fuel corporations and travels to James Price Point and PNG to examine the social and environmental consequences. He writes that ‘calling out the corporations that are causing global environmental damage is vital’.
Loewenstein builds on ideas from Naomi Klein’s book The Shock Doctrine, which documents what she terms ‘disaster capitalism’. Klein investigates the extent to which, after war or natural disaster has ravaged a nation, government deregulation and privatisation is imposed without democratic participation. Loewenstein sees a new brand of vulture capitalism, one that goes beyond the exploitation of disaster to infringe on more and more aspects of society.
But Loewenstein’s book is not all doom and gloom: he talks to people on the ground, each fighting against corporate power and predatory capitalism. His aim is to demand accountability and start a global debate. With a voice that is reasoned and intelligent, he warns of ‘a future that is being written without your consent’.
Kara Nicholson is currently completing a masters in environmental studies and spends her time reading novels to avoid doing any of the actual study part.
The Australian government’s decision to send all refugee boat arrivals to Papua New Guinea (PNG) is a political earthquake. It has nothing to do with alleviating the suffering of asylum seekers – if Canberra cared about it, a regional solution would allow processing of claims in Indonesia – and will further burden a poor neighbour. Some will be licking their lips at the prospect of massively enlarged detention centres; private companies will make a killing.
Veteran ABC journalist Sean Dorney rightly worries about social cohesion in PNG with the inevitable influx of thousands of people. Local communities there are already concerned that once again, they’re being forgotten. There’s no welfare system in the state, and its health and education infrastructures are crumbling. They’ll rightly wonder why these new arrivals will be treated better than the countless families in squatter settlements, including in the centre of the capital, Port Moresby.
I visited these areas myself in 2012 and spoke to locals who reminded me that Australian aid, over $500m annually, was having no positive impact on their lives. Prime minister Kevin Rudd’s latest announcement – to improve hospitals and universities in a touching bribe to PNG’s political elites – will be greeted with necessary skepticism by the many citizens who never see a decent hospital or school for their children.
The problem has never been that Australia gives too much aid; it’s that we’re throwing huge amounts of money to avoid a failed state on our doorstep by backing rapacious mining interests and overpaid consultants. After decades of Australian aid, PNG’s rates of infant mortality, sexual violence against women and corruption have never been worse.
None of this concerns both major sides of Australian politics. For more than a decade, they’ve outsourced the most unpleasant tasks of refugee processing to largely unaccountable private firms (British multinationals Serco and G4S being the most obvious), and Rudd’s latest moves will inevitably enrich even more of them. G4S, currently embroiled in a massive overcharging investigation case in Britain and facing a civil suit over claims three of its UK security officers assaulted a man while escorting him on a plane during a deportation, was granted an $80m contract by Australia to run the government’s facilities on PNG’s Manus Island. Recent revelations in the Guardian reveal that there has been no official oversight of processing times in the UN condemned facility.
This mirrors my own investigations, assisted by a senior Serco source, that confirms Canberra barely monitors the operation, because Australia so desperately needs the corporation to warehouse individuals and families.
This is the fate now facing PNG, with even more multinationals bidding for influence and profits in a nation whose last government was described by US officials in Wikileaks cables as a “totally dysfunctional blob”. G4S already have a large presence in PNG, I saw local staff guarding many buildings and energy installations last year, and Port Moresby has allowed the company to manage the soon-to-launch Exxon-Mobil LNG plant.
NGO Jubilee Australia released a 2012 report called Pipe Dreams (disclosure: I offered advice on certain sections and provided some photos) that questioned the Australian government’s financial and rhetoric backing of the $19bn LNG project. “There are serious risks that the revenues generated by the project will not mitigate the negative economic and social impacts of the project”, they argued. “In fact, it is very likely that the Project will exacerbate poverty, increase corruption and lead to more violence in the country.” Remember this is what Australia means when it boasts of assisting our northern neighbour.
History is repeating. I visited the province of Bougainville in 2012 to witness the aftermath of a civil war between a state and locals who opposed a polluting mine. At least 15,000 people were killed during the conflict in the 1980s and 1990s. Australia backed the PNG government to the hilt, and today there are moves to re-open the copper and gold mine without justice being served for crimes committed or a thorough environmental clean-up. This is how Australia supports PNG. A number of PNG citizens told me they wanted all Australian aid to stop immediately, because we’re forcing on them a development model that is only enriching political and industry elites.
Australia’s relationship with PNG since Canberra granted independence in 1975 has been based on paternalism. We have believed that throwing billions of dollars at our former subjects will bring prosperity and security. Former prime minister John Howard proudly wore the title (endorsed by former US President George W Bush) of Australia being “Washington’s deputy sheriff in the Asia-Pacific region”.
The population of PNG knows that we don’t treat them with respect and this latest move against asylum seekers will merely confirm that belief. Tragically, akin to Nauru having no economic alternative to accepting refugees from Australia, PNG is placed in exactly the same position by a regional bully that contributes to both these nations lying in ruin.
“Stopping the boats” and avoiding people dying at sea is a noble motive if its combined with solutions that place the rights of refugees first. Instead, we’re locked in a battle to punish a tiny fraction of the world’s asylum seekers.
The idea that refugees are an existential threat to Australia is laughable, but Labor’s so-called PNG solution completely accepts the narrative set by the Liberal Party since before 9/11. It remains almost verboten to argue for open borders in Western political discourse. An Indonesian people smuggler has already told ABC that the “PNG solution” may reduce the boats “for a while”. But at what cost? Using PNG as a dumping ground for an Australian political problem is guaranteed to breed resentment in a country most of our media studiously ignores.
Australia treats its neighbours with contempt. As soon as the latest contortions of refugee policy were announced last week, I tweeted that Australia could possibly expect international sanctions, not unlike against Israel due to its human rights abuses of Palestinians. If we flagrantly ignore international law and morality while locking up the most vulnerable people on the planet in privatised centres, we deserve nothing less.
A key issue in my forthcoming book, Profits of Doom, is the role of multinationals in turning huge profits from warehousing the most vulnerable people in our societies, including asylum seekers.
These revelations in Britain (via The Independent) are interesting but sadly history suggests that like vampires these corporations continue scoring contracts because neo-liberal politicians and officials simply can’t imagine a world where providing the best, as opposed to the supposedly “cheapest”, is the goal:
Whitehall contracts running into billions of pounds are being urgently reviewed after the Government disclosed that two major firms had charged the taxpayer to monitor non-existent electronic tags, some of which had been assigned to dead offenders.
In an announcement that throws the Coalition’s privatisation drive into disarray, the Serious Fraud Office was called in to investigate G4S, the world’s largest security company, over contracts dating back over a decade.
Serco, one of Britain’s largest companies, also faces an inquiry by auditors over its charges for operating tagging schemes.
The firms supply an array of services to the public sector from running courts, prisons and immigration removal centres to managing welfare-to-work schemes and the Atomic Weapons Establishment.
Between them the two companies receive around £1.5bn a year from the taxpayer, but their contracts are worth billions of pounds because the vast majority run for several years.
They were also hoping to cash in on moves by the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) to hand them further large contracts to operate prisons and supervise offenders in the community.
The process of awarding all contracts was put on hold last night as the inquiries got underway.
The MoJ began investigating all its agreements with the two firms, including the running of major prisons, while the Cabinet Office started scrutinising all other Government contracts with G4S and Serco.
Shares in both companies fell sharply after the announcement by Chris Grayling, the Justice Secretary.
Shares in G4S – which suffered torrid publicity over its mishandling of the last year’s London Olympics security contract – finished the day 12.6p down at 213p. Serco tumbled by 54p to 626.5p.
Each of the companies relies heavily on Britain both for income and burnishing its international reputation. The move by the Government is unlikely to result in the wholesale loss of contracts, as the firms have few competitors of the same size but is a blow to their standing worldwide.
The reality inside Australia’s countless, Serco run detention centres is far too often ignored by the media. There are notable exceptions, of course, and it’s a key theme in my upcoming book, Profits of Doom.
One of the strongest examples of independent journalism tackling the issue is the public release this week of Detention Logs, a project by three young journalists keen to bring far more transparency to what the general public knows and understands about the literally thousands of refugees trapped in immigration detention. Their key pieces this week are here, here, here, here and here.
It’s worth remembering that this project has been independently financed and initiated without the backing of the mainstream media (Detention Logs wants and needs your help). I know this because I’m friends with two of the journalists. That says something about the parlous state of investigative reporting in Australia.