Feeling sorry for Serco?

British multinational Serco, the company that runs Australia’s immigration detention centres, is facing constant fines from the government. A story in yesterday’s Australian (headlined in the paper edition, “Breaches sending detention firm bust”, which is completely untrue) shows the dysfunctional nature of the relationship between contractor and government. No transparency exists:

The company running Australia’s immigration detention centres is incurring unsustainable fines from the Department of Immigration for breaches of its $712 million contract, according to a leaked email from Serco’s senior operations manager at the Christmas Island detention centre.

An escape on July 1 — about three months after Australian Federal Police were sent to bolster the security at the centre and insist that electric perimeter fences be switched on — is the latest in a string of breaches that will cost Serco dearly.

The company last week appointed a full-time security manager to prevent further escapes. Guards are now stationed on the perimeter of the centre under beach umbrellas on 12-hour shifts, complaining it is too hot and that shade falls on the other side of the fence for several hours each day.

Serco’s senior operations manager for the detention centre, Steve Southgate, addressed colleagues about continued breaches in an email last Monday.

“We can no longer remain where we are,” he said. “We are getting fined for things that should have been completed. We are getting fined for not paying attention to the detail. We are getting fined for not doing what we have said we will do. We need to change our culture to a proactive culture and get ourselves out of this reactive blame culture.”

The Immigration Department does not reveal the amount of any fines to Serco. But the 729-page contract spells out strict terms on breaches that can lead to abatements, including time limits for reporting incidents as well as paperwork requirements. The Australian has been told a single escape can incur a $100,000 fine.

The five-year contract for the running of immigration detention services has been made more difficult because of a blowout in the number of detainees prompted by a surge in boat arrivals that began in late 2008. There were fewer than 1000 detainees in the network when Serco took over from G4S while yesterday there were 5649.

The paper also ran a powerful feature about the detrimental effect of detention on both refugees and Serco staff. This unaccountable and privatised system cares little for human beings when the profit motive is paramount in the minds of company executives. Governments, meanwhile, simply want the problem to go away and believe a corporation will offer one less level of public scrutiny:

…There are fears at the highest levels of the company [Serco] that many staff are offside.

Some of the guards contacted by The Australian are exhausted by the constant conflict in their workplace and spoke with jarring hostility towards the detainees as well as their employer.

“Don’t rush home,” one guard emailed a colleague who was off work and on a holiday late last year. “All the f . . king arseholes are sewing their lips up and getting on the roof and bashing each other and hanging themselves.”

The guard told his friend how he had feared for his safety during a brawl. “There were seven of us . . . with 300 of them during the big group fight,” he wrote.

“[A fellow guard, name removed] cut down someone and was attacked by a guy with his lips sewn up.”

Staff are furious this week to be forced to sit around the perimeter of the detention centre under beach umbrellas as a result of an escape on July 1.

It was hot and the shade fell on the other side of the fence for much of the day, they complained.

While the work at the remote centres in Queensland, WA and Christmas Island can be harrowing, boring, uncomfortable or dangerous, for many it is the best money they have made.

Serco’s guards, or client service officers, say they get about $10,000 a month after tax if they are on a sought-after fly-in, fly-out contract from the mainland.

Many are ex-prison guards but that sort of experience is not necessary; the company’s contract with the Immigration Department stipulates only that they obtain a certificate level II in security operations within six months of starting work. That takes four weeks, according to a recent Serco recruiting drive, though The Australian has been told some new arrivals on the island trained for 12 days in a Perth hotel, followed by a few more days of training on Christmas Island, then a graduation ceremony.

Their training included learning the company’s computer system and watching videos on how to restrain people with appropriate force. They also practised restraints and other techniques.

All Serco employees must also do cultural awareness and mental health awareness training.