What happens when you hire Serco to run detention centres; profit before care

As the Australian government is criticised for its detention centre system facing ongoing violence and chaos – the likely response is to be “tougher” on asylum seekers, a wonderfully humane outcome – Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young focuses on the culpability of Serco, the company that’s allowed to escape scrutiny:

TONY JONES: Alright. We’ll come to that in more detail in a moment. First we’ve just heard claims from a former guard that Serco, the private corporation running the detention centres, has been throwing raw recruits in at the deep end at Villawood Detention Centre without proper training. How serious a breach would that be?

SARAH HANSON-YOUNG: Look, I think that’s very serious. And unfortunately, it’s those types of reports that we’ve been hearing on the ground for some time now, not just in Villawood, but in other facilities. Questions over the adequate training of those who have to work with children, adequate training for those on the ground every day having to work with asylum seekers who are clearly suffering severe mental health concerns, suffering torture and trauma from the persecution and torture they’ve suffered.

Now, it’s – I really feel for the Serco security officers on this one. They are at the cold face in a very, very difficult situation. And the Serco officers that I talk to when I visit detention centres, I’ve never been anywhere where I haven’t had an officer come up to me and say, “Hang on, Senator, let me tell you the real story.” And that is a concern. It’s about time the Government reviewed the contract, had an urgent audit of the types of operations that are going on and realise that the promise that they broke in 2007 to bring back into public hands the running of detention centres, when they broke that promise, they made a mistake.

TONY JONES: So, the Greens strongly believe, do they, that the detention centres should be re-nationalised in effect?

SARAH HANSON-YOUNG: Well, at the last – at the 2007 election, the Labor Party said because of the situation that we’d seen happen for the decade or half before them, the situation of rioting across the different detention centres, including on Nauru under the Howard Government, the Labor Party said, “Yes, I think it’s about time we started to have more transparency in the process.” Of course Labor got into power, they won government and we’ve never seen that promise acted upon. I do think it’s time …

TONY JONES: But can I just interrupt you there? Why would – why do you believe public servants would do any better than Serco?

SARAH HANSON-YOUNG: I think it’s about the transparency. Since the contract was signed with Serco, some two and a half years ago, people, as myself in Senate Estimates, advocates have been asking to see the contract. Let’s see what the service provision requirements are. When the Government talks about possible breaches, let’s have a look at what those possible breaches are. There’s no set auditing, there’s no regular auditing and because no-one knows what the service contract is because it’s in-confidence, commercial-in-confidence, there’s nothing to judge that on. And I think that really does raise questions about how these facilities are being run at taxpayers’ money and then when tensions rise like this, who is to blame? Well, at the moment only the Government can take the blame. But we really need to get down to the issues of seeing what is going on on the ground.

TONY JONES: Okay. Chris Bowen says he’s got virtually now two inquiries underway, with the same team doing the inquiry of course, the Christmas Island riots, now this one looking into the circumstances of the riots and the preparedness of Serco to actually deal with these things. I mean, should he wait before acting, wait for the results of these inquiries?

SARAH HANSON-YOUNG: Well, look, first and foremost, I think we really need to make it very clear that we all condemn the violence, we all condemn the property damage of the riots and I don’t think anyone can argue that the writing has made the situation any better in either of the facilities and for anybody there, particularly those directly involved. I don’t think it’s made their cases any better. But why this has occurred is what should be being investigated. The complex reasons behind the rise of the tensions and really trying to move forward to a solution. If the Government only wants to look at individual case by individual case, they will fail to address it. There is a systematic problem in the immigration detention network. It all needs to be reviewed.

A report on last night’s ABC Lateline highlighted the flaws in a privatised detention system:

KAREN BARLOW: But a former guard at Villawood has come forward, describing a privatised detention system in crisis. He says problems at the centre have been building for some time.

FORMER VILLAWOOD DETENTION CENTRE GUARD: It’s pretty unprecedented, really. Yeah, never seen anything like it before in Villawood’s entire history. I don’t think there’s been that much destruction at all.

KAREN BARLOW: He says his former employer Serco does not train staff properly.

FORMER VILLAWOOD DETENTION CENTRE GUARD: Basically, from what I’ve seen, the new recruits were just basically put on the floor, no training whatsoever, they were being told that they would be trained as they were, and that also has never happened before. Basically what is supposed to happen is that they’re meant to go through a – at least a minimum six-week course and then have a year of on-the-job training. Serco just basically got rid of the six-week course using staffing levels as an excuse, and then basically just threw the staff straight onto the floor and expected that the experienced staff to train as well as do their normal jobs.

KAREN BARLOW: The former guard says the Federal Government should review Serco’s contract.

FORMER VILLAWOOD DETENTION CENTRE GUARD: They’ve had pretty poor performance and basically the spate of incidences, major incidences under Serco’s control, have been – there’s just been too many. Um, so, yeah, I think that the contract should really be reassessed.

KAREN BARLOW: The Government’s review of last month’s riots at Christmas Island will now also investigate the Villawood protests. That will include the response of Serco and the Immigration Department.

CHRIS BOWEN: Well there’s no evidence before me to indicate that any actions by Serco or Department of Immigration staff on the ground at the centres led to these incidents or that the response wasn’t adequate. But I am not going to pre-empt the results of the Hawke-Williams review. I’m looking forward to receiving that review, and if there are lessons to be learnt, they’ll be learnt out of that review.

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

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