By SAMIRA SHACKLE
It is said that no publicity is bad publicity, but the bosses of G4S, currently the most hated company in Britain, would have to disagree. In fact, chief executive Nick Buckles was forced to do so publicly. Hauled in front of Parliament on July 17, he was asked if the company’s reputation was in tatters and if the current situation was a “humiliating shambles.” His response was a defeated one: “At the moment, I would have to agree with you.”
It’s not the kind of talk you’d expect from the head of a multinational corporation. So what’s gone wrong? The private security firm G4S was awarded a £284m contract to provide 13,700 guards for the London Olympics, which are due to start at the end of July. Last week, with just a fortnight to go until the opening ceremony, the story broke that G4S had only 4,000 guards in place. The company’s claims that it had a further 9,000 in the pipeline were quickly drowned out among disaster stories of staff failing to turn up to venues and police being forced to step in to plug the gap.
In the ensuing panic, an extra 3,500 soldiers have been rushed in to Olympic duties, bringing the total number of soldiers at the Games up to 17,000 (almost twice the number posted to Afghanistan). Many of those troops have just returned from active service and were due to be on leave. And that isn’t the end of it – eight police forces across the UK have also had to deploy extra officers to provide security to the Olympic zone. While politicians are at pains to stress that the Olympics will be secure, this has prompted handwringing about policing shortfalls elsewhere.
People employed by G4S to work as security guards have spoken out in droves, claiming that the company failed to let them know whether they’d been hired or not, did not provide training, and did not tell them when and where their shifts were. The error means that many, having turned down other employment to work at the Olympics, will now be out of a job for the summer.
As Buckles was forced to admit, it has been an unmitigated disaster, and accordingly, £400m has been wiped off the company’s share price. Given that G4S makes much of its money from governments outsourcing “business processes” – for example, placing security staff where there aren’t enough police or prison officers – the case illustrates something of a role reversal, with public servants like the army and the police being called in to cover the gap.
Everyone in Britain has now heard the name G4S – but what is this company, and what does it do? The simple answer is that G4S is the world’s largest private security firm, with 657,000 employees in more than 125 countries. It is the third biggest private sector employer in the world, after Walmart and Foxconn. And it is no stranger to big public contracts – last year, government contracts of the type outlined above accounted for 27 percent of its £7.5bn turnover. In Britain, it already runs seven prisons and a large chunk of asylum services. The Olympics should have made 2012 a bumper year, solidifying the firm’s position as it eyes lucrative policing contracts up for grabs as public sector cuts cause an increase in outsourcing.
The company even boasts its own theme tune, a much-derided rock song called “G4S: Securing Your World,” which features lyrics like “The enemy prowls, wanting to attack/But we’re on the wall, we’ve got your back.” A YouTube video of the apparently unironic song went viral, and has now been removed by G4S. (It’s still available on Soundcloud.)
Misguided theme tune aside, this firm is one of the main beneficiaries of the steady move toward privatization in the UK. But although the Olympics fiasco has been a major source of embarrassment for the company, the security of this sporting event represents the pleasant face of the work done by G4S. Another story in the news recently tells the darker side.
Until earlier this year, G4S was responsible for handling the deportation of failed asylum seekers (the contract has now been passed to another firm, Reliance). In October 2010, Jimmy Mubenga, a 46-year-old Angolan asylum seeker, died after being restrained by three G4S security guards on an outgoing flight. Other passengers on the flight describe Mubenga crying out that he could not breathe, and shouting “They are going to kill me.” It was announced on July 17 that the three guards would not face prosecution, in a decision Lord Ramsbotham, a former chief inspector of prisons, has called “perverse.”
The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) said that there was “insufficient evidence” to press charges for manslaughter. It came down to a technicality: Mubenga was definitely held in the “severely splinted” position, which restricts breathing, but no one could say with any certainty whether it lasted long enough to be the sole cause of his death. A separate charge of corporate manslaughter was also dismissed, with the CPS deciding that although there were failings in the training offered by G4S, these were not so bad to be considered criminal. The decision followed a 17-month investigation in which whistleblowers revealed that G4S has been repeatedly warned by its own staff that lethal force was being used to restrain deportees.
Sadly, the mistreatment of asylum seekers is nothing new, but it appears to have been compounded by the dominance of private security firms in the management of deportation, transport and detention centers. These firms lack the accountability that public bodies have – at least in principle – and their actions are not scrutinized in the same way. Anecdotal evidence of brutality in these facilities abound.
While G4S is not the only firm to hold contracts in the lucrative “asylum market,” it manages four of Britain’s detention centers for asylum seekers. In 2010 alone, a record 773 complaints were lodged against G4S by detainees, including 48 claims of assault.
Unfortunately, as some of the most vulnerable people in our society, asylum seekers also have the least rights, and it is barely surprising that they are being used as a test case for handing over security work to unregulated, unaccountable, profit-driven companies.
Those who argue that the private sector is inherently more efficient tend to base their arguments on the idea that competition means that poor management is not rewarded. That patently hasn’t been the case here. It appears that the more controversies and errors G4S makes, the more government contracts it is handed. Take prisons.
Birmingham Prison has been under the management of G4S since it became the first British prison to be transferred from the state to private control last October. Soon afterward, inmates were locked into their cells for almost a day after a set of keys fitting every cell door went missing. The cost of fitting new locks to the cells, doors and gates was estimated to be £250,000. But perhaps this should not be a surprise; in the early 1990s, in its previous incarnation as Group 4, the company gained notoriety after a series of prisoners escaped while being transferred from prison to court. Its defense is that these incidents are few and far between if you consider the sheer size of its operations, with the vast majority of its prisons and security contracts across the globe running without incident.
But looking at some of those worldwide operations does nothing to ease discomfort about the corporation and its ethics. It has been criticized for its role in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories. What G4S Israel terms its “homeland security activities” include providing scanners to checkpoints in Gaza and the “seam zone,” a stretch of land between Israel’s pre-1967 border and the separation wall. This zone creates enclaves where nearly 8,000 Palestinians live, cut off from the remainder of the West Bank. Palestinian children in these enclaves are routinely searched twice a day by soldiers at checkpoints, turning a 15-minute walk to school into an hour-long ordeal.
G4S has also been accused of providing security equipment and personnel to shops, supermarkets and businesses in illegal settlements in the West Bank. After a merger with the Israeli security firm Aminut, the company provides security services in the West Bank. Israeli settlements in the occupied territories are illegal under international law.
Clearly, this apparent complicity in human rights abuses at home and abroad were not enough for the government, or Logoc, the organizers of London 2012, to think twice about awarding G4S the enormous Olympics contract. Perhaps there is no surprise there. But will the mess they’ve made of Olympic security be enough to stop the government from awarding the firm yet more money and responsibility? It doesn’t look hopeful.
In the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, Britain is run by a Conservative-led coalition focused on cutting public spending.
Police forces in England and Wales are facing budget cuts of 20 percent by 2015, which alongside pressure to keep up tough law and order, means outsourcing and privatization on an unprecedented scale. G4S is far from being the only company to gain from this, with Reliance and Serco also competing for big contracts, but thus far, it has been a big beneficiary. G4S was recently awarded a £200m contract to take over half of the civilian duties of the Lincolnshire police force. Ed Miliband, the leader of the Labour Party, has called for a pause on all new contracts until there has been a review into G4S’s “ability to deliver.” The government rejected his call, with the policing minister Nick Herbert saying that although the Olympics incident was “lamentable,” it was a “one-off event.”
The UK now has the largest private prison sector in Europe, and it looks set to get substantially bigger over the next decade. Much like the growth in the asylum market, this has happened almost unnoticed. Why does this matter? Put simply, as the case of G4S illustrates, these firms are unregulated and unaccountable. They do not have the same obligations to the public that state bodies – at least in principle – are committed to, and they have no ethical compulsion in the business they do worldwide.
With the Olympics debacle putting at least a temporary cloud over G4S’s dealings in Britain, a line from that theme song seems prescient: “But consider all you have at stake/The time is now, don’t make a mistake.”
As the firm prepares to take control of yet more police forces and asylum services, perhaps those mistakes don’t have consequences after all.