Governments embrace Serco then wonder why they fail

Another day and yet another example of the British multinational unable to manage the job (and good on the Australian’s Paige Taylor for reporting on this running sore):

There are now tensions among guards as well as detainees on Christmas Island.

Up to 100 untrained casual detention workers at the centre claim they are doing the same work as qualified security officers but are paid about $800 a week less.

Serco, the company chosen to run Australia’s immigration detention centres, is battling a shortage of workers on the remote island and has grown concerned by recent resignations and dissatisfaction among the lower-paid workforce employed by subcontractor MSS.

Serco has begun recruiting MSS workers in a bid to quell disquiet and prevent further resignations, The Australian has been told. “We’re the ones doing all the work while Serco workers get the good pay,” one MSS worker told The Australian.

“Some Serco officers are sympathetic but some just lord it over you because you haven’t done the Serco course. We’re not even supposed to have contact with the clients (detainees) and we’re running the place.”

Under Australian law, detention centre officers who interact with asylum-seekers in detention must complete a training course that usually takes six weeks.

The paper published a long feature yesterday that detailed what Serco has become and why so many officials find them so appealing. And yet despite the company’s troubling record, it doesn’t seem to stop them receiving more and more contracts. That’s the genius of unquestioned privatisation; transferring the problems of the state to others:

Serco, the company that has attracted headlines by operating Australia’s troubled immigration detention centres, says that unlike some US contracting firms it is not interested in providing armed forces.

It does, however, provide a wide array of defence support services. Serco’s expansion from a small cinema company into today’s multi-tasking giant with a …£4.3 billion ($6.6bn) annual turnover began with a 1962 contract to build and support a missile early warning system at a Royal Air Force base.

Its military work now gives it a role on every defence base in Australia and includes training RAF pilots and helping to manage the Atomic Weapons Establishment that provides and maintains Britain’s nuclear warheads.

At the same time it has moved into everything from administration services to education, transport and healthcare. It is one of the largest air traffic control operators in the world and is Britain’s largest employer of scientists.

With the Cameron government determined to outsource more services and Serco’s foreign earnings growing rapidly to 40 per cent of its revenues the company has become a blue-chip darling of London stock analysts, with many of its operations not just recession-proof but benefiting from an era of government cutbacks.

n 2005 the Chief Inspector of Prisons reported that Serco’s Doncaster prison was run with an “institutional meanness” that was reflected in “the physical conditions in which many prisoners lived, which in some cases were squalid”. “Many prisoners lacked pillows, adequate mattresses [and] toilet seats,” the inspector said.

One person familiar with the prison at that time tells The Australian part of the problem was that a private company’s duties had to be encapsulated in a contract. “In that case the contract said the company had to maintain proper toilets but it didn’t say anything about toilet seats, and it said there had to be decent bedding but it didn’t mention pillows.”

The next inspection in 2008 found things had improved at Doncaster although some “two-person cells had been turned into three-person cells by placing a bed in the shared toilet [cubicle].”

David Ramsbotham, chief inspector of prisons from 1995 to 2001, believes private firms cut costs in a worrying way.

“The thing that worries me most about the private sector prisons is that frankly because obviously they are trying to make a profit they have got to decide where they can afford to cut corners and the corners they cut are usually to do with staffing and staff numbers,” he says.

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

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