An international services company that has attracted extensive criticism of its human rights record is likely to be awarded the new contract to operate immigration detention centres by the Rudd Government. The company has also been criticised by the ALP itself over its industrial relations track record. Serco Australia, owned by UK services giant Serco, is currently negotiating with the Department of Immigration to finalise a five year contract commencing later this year.

Labelled “the biggest company you’ve never heard of”, Serco has ridden the privatisation boom in the UK, North America and Australia through a model of underbidding and cost-cutting. It operates prisons and detention centres in the UK and Western Australia and immigration detention facilities around the world, as part of an extensive services portfolio. Its UK activities have drawn extensive criticism.

In 2004, a 14 year-old boy died in a Serco-run children’s prison some hours after being subjected to “nose distraction technique”, a “pain compliance technique” that formed part of the prison’s inmate control regime. The incident led to a review of restraint methods and the banning of the technique in late 2007. At an adult facility in Scotland run by Serco, a prisoner died of meningitis despite repeated pleas for medical assistance. The facility has a higher than average rate of deaths in custody. At another facility, prisoners are required to sleep in toilets in conditions described by the UK Prisons Inspectorate as “squalid”.

Serco’s operation of the Colnbrook detention centre has been criticised by the Inspectorate for “struggling to cope””and decreasingly safe. An inmate’s suicide has been blamed on the lack of medical support from Serco. Serco also operates medical services in the UK that have undercut competitors, reduced services and failed to meet benchmarks, with Serco in one instance forced to fly doctors in from Eastern Europe because local GPs refused to work for it.

Serco subsidiaries have also drawn criticism closer to home. In late 2006, ALP Senator Kate Lundy drew attention to attempts by Serco Sodexho, which had won the Canberra Defence services contract, to use duress to force employees to sign AWAs. Trade unions also attacked Serco Sodexho for sacking cleaners in the Defence for refusing to sign AWAs. The company brought cleaners in from Wollongong rather than employ workers under a collective agreement. Serco has taken a similar approach before to non-military defence employees.

The group is represented in Canberra by lobbyist heavy hitters GRA.

The Immigration Department says the tender process has been conducted appropriately. “The Department developed the tender process in consultation with the Human Rights Commission, the Ombudsman’s Office and the United Nation High Commissioner for Refugees,” Immigration spokesman Sandi Logan told Crikey.

They provided input on the range, nature and extent of the performance specifications so that the procurement process focussed on the needs of detainees. That will be built into the service model and performance indicators and be closely monitored by the Department. We expect Serco would draw on its international experience in providing these services, if successful.

A spokeswoman for Serco said the company’s human rights record was impeccable and had been borne out in reports by UK Prisons Inspectorate.

“We are committed to caring for detainees with decency and respect. We are particularly excited by the Australian Government’s desire to see the new Service Delivery Model introduced — a new client centred culture for immigration detention in Australia.”