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May 31, 2013

Serco cops a serve — but what’s the alternative?

Serco, which provides detention centre services for the federal government, has come under fire for allowing a string of escapes. But is there an alternative to outsourcing?

Immigration services contractor Serco has hit back at whistleblower claims that its transport and escort unit is poorly run and underfunded.

A Serco employee has contacted several media outlets, including Crikey, to claim that recent escapes by immigration detainees while in transit reflect poor or non-existent risk assessment, a lack of experience and understaffing by the Serco unit involved. The whistleblower provided a number of documents to back up the claim, including material on the plans to transport German detainee Carlo Kohl, a thief who escaped, or more accurately walked away, from his escorts while on a stopover in Bangkok on his way back to Germany as part of a voluntary repatriation.

The Bangkok incident may have longer-term implications both for Serco, whose reputation will take a hammering because of the incident, and for Australia, given we rely on transiting detainees through airports such as Bangkok to their return destinations. A Department of Immigration and Citizenship spokesman said that the Department was awaiting an urgent report from Serco on the incident.

Among the whistleblower’s claims was that:

  • The transport and escort unit is led by an accountant with no security background.
  • The unit’s “generic cost-effective planning” processes are ineffective: when 24 Vietnamese “clients” were escorted to a medical facility in Darwin, six escaped. Despite a number of earlier escape incidents involving Vietnamese detainees, including two detainees escaping during a church visit a month earlier while four Serco staff stood and waited outside, the visit involving 24 detainees was assessed as “low risk”;
  • Serco staff are untrained and underskilled, and all transport and escort senior managers in Darwin are British Serco employees brought to Australia on 457 visas; and
  • There was no operational plan for the escort of Solomon Baker, a convicted criminal, to a Sydney Hospital, where he escaped and jumped to his death in April.

This isn’t the first time claims of underfunding and undertraining detainee security services staff, or reliance on foreign workers, have been leveled at Serco in relation to its Australian operations; as long ago as 2011, just two years in to its five-year contract, the company was criticised for its poor practices in detention centres. None of the criticism has slowed the company’s growing profits from detention services.

The British company, which has also been at the centre of criticism over its operation of detention centres in the UK, rejected the claims. A spokesman pointed out that in 2012 the company averaged 98.7% compliance against the key performance indicators of its contract. The company provided 280,000 transport services during the year, the spokesman said:

“Our Transport & Escort officers hold a Certificate II in Security Operations and have completed an Induction Training Course for work in Immigration Detention. In addition, specific Transport & Escort training is provided by experienced officers who have qualified as Cert IV trainer assessors through an external RTO. Our training programs meet the obligations outlined in our contract, and our Transport & Escort training was developed in collaboration with the Department of Immigration and Citizenship.”

The unit’s management team “is led at each level by experienced, well-qualified leaders with relevant backgrounds in security, immigration services, custodial services, logistics and vehicle fleet management”. Four staff members are currently suspended pending investigations, the spokesman said.

The company also rejected the claim that it is dominated by 457 visa holders: “We seek to recruit locally where possible. Less than 1.2% of our immigration services staff are on 457 visas.” Given the company employment of around 5200 people in Australia, this means over 60 staff are on 457 visas.

There’s some broader context for all this, however. Outsourced provision of people management services is now standard in Australia and across most developed countries. Service providers like Serco make large profits from providing services like staffing detention centres and escorting detainees. But the only alternatives are to either find other service providers — and the Immigration Department signed contracts with two previous service providers, and was unhappy with the level of service provided — or to in-source the services. And in-sourcing would need to involve law enforcement personnel (or, possibly, military personnel), not public servants — public servants are not trained in security operations or personal services like the kind required to run a detention centre. It would also cost significantly more.

The challenge will become more acute in years to come as Australia begins funding a higher level of disability services via DisabilityCare. Again, private companies are likely to provide such services, rather than government departments, even through government services like health providers.

Critics might correctly note that some of Serco’s problems have been generated by the dramatic increase in the number of asylum seekers in detention, and there would be less pressure on service providers if there were fewer detainees. But Australia will always have a problem with illegal immigrants, visa overstayers and criminals requiring deportation, regardless of the number of asylum seekers arriving by boat. The fact is, there are few alternatives for private service provision. If Serco’s critics have one, you can bet the Immigration Department would be very open to hearing it.

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19 thoughts on “Serco cops a serve — but what’s the alternative?

  1. Brett D. Wright

    The Certificate II in Security Operations mentioned here typically comprises 100 hours of training. It’s the basic training course for club bouncers and the like.

  2. shepherdmarilyn

    Well we could stop jailing asylum seekers and kick SERCO out.

    Why don’t the lazy media ever consider that possibility? AFter all it is an expensive waste of money and lives.

    SERCO think asylum seekers are criminals, the media speak as if escaping is the worst crime on the planet when in fact the SA Supreme court through such cases out of court as a sick joke 10 years ago.

  3. AsGrayAsGray

    Serco is one of those ‘operate at lowest cost possible’ companies – they are cheapskates, and look for every way possible to squeeze down wages and other outgoings.
    No-one should be surprised then, that they fail to do even basic things, like adequately train their staff, adequately cater for contingency, or even meet their minimum requirements under their contracts.
    Governments and govt. departments do themselves no good when engaging companies like Serco, apart from that initial feel-good factor from making some apparent budget savings.
    Have seen how Serco operates when contracted by Defence, and it’s bottom-of-the-barrel stuff… Want to breach security at a facility? Just make sure it’s manned by Serco. It’ll probably be a retired taxi driver (underpaid, overworked, and a bit tired and downtrodden) in the guard hut.
    Their claim that the training they provide or facilitate is sufficient is complete BS – they will have negotiated down the contractual requirements to secure the contract at lowest cost, and will have termed that as a ‘win-win’ when securing the deal.

  4. Bill Hilliger

    When governments privatise and hive off everything you get the likes of Serco. Government organisations are now captive to the poor services served up by likes of Serco, like it or lump it

  5. Pamela

    Tosh Bernard- Write what you know about. Refugees detention etc is not one of your strengths.
    Facts SERCO are Risk averse like DIAC which means they spend their lives dodging harmless shadows and so never see the wolf until it is tearing their throats out.
    SERCO Guards are so busy guarding new mothers in labour wards and hospital rooms that they have no time or staff for the big stuff.
    They have lists and lists of grades of risk requiring extraordinary numbers of staff out of all proportion to risk eg An gentle Hazara man taken to Court with SIX officers driven in van to holding cells at Court- escorted through secure areas only to COURT and Back.
    Where and How and how likely is it that this person will attempt to escape.
    Example last week. Young woman has baby at a Melbourne hospital. Two guards stationed on 8 hour shifts- one at the door and one inside at arms length from perfectly healthy happy young mum and baby. Why ? she is an asylum seeker just arrived. Where would she run to? With Husband and children back at detention centre – why would she run.
    The amount of security on low risk asylum seekers is bizarre , intrusive and cruel.
    SERCO are making a packet out of this contract which the Australian government are stupid and profligate enough to pay.
    Take a look at how other countries MANAGE informal arrivals and you will see that we are wasting money on an exercise which makes as much sense as the cargo cult.

  6. shepherdmarilyn

    I remember the case of Hamida and Mandana in Ruddock’s days, $2 million over 2 years to jail them in a motel after Hamida made 5 suicide attempts in Woomera.

    When the high court allowed their appeal they were released and Mandana told me that all she wanted was to go to school with the two frigging guards she had every day.

    In Roqia Bakhtiyari’s case is was $750,000 over 10 mnths when she gave birth and the doctors wouldn’t let her be sent back to Baxter while her kids were in Adelaide.

    DIAC and both major parties are completely deranged and have been for the 21 years of this monstrous policy yet I still have hard core ALP members telling me to shut up and go away when I write about it.

  7. Tom F

    “And in-sourcing would need to involve law enforcement personnel (or, possibly, military personnel), not public servants — public servants are not trained in security operations or personal services like the kind required to run a detention centre.”

    Actually, Australia has public servants who are trained in “security operations or personal services”: Protective Service Officers, currently operating under the AFP, but previously a stand-alone service. They guard sites of national significance, are first-responders at airports, and protect diplomatic facilities and personnel.

    Choosing Serco over DiAC or PSO personnel to run detention centres has been a political decision, and not an inevitable one.

  8. Damien McBain

    Serco is a company like any other. It will, as far as possible, manage its revenue, costs and other critical elements in order to achieve the best possible return whilst meeting its obligations to its customers. No customers = no business. Cost > revenue = no business. And yet it’s a good viable business.
    I don’t understand what you lefties find so offensive about that?!
    Ideally these activities would be done by public instruments but they are almost universally and very unfortunately much less efficient than private operators. And even if public servants were providing these services, is anyone silly enough to put their knackers on the line and predict the outcomes would be any better?
    And then there’s the fact that many don’t think we should be detaining or transporting would-be Australians in the first place… and I think, even in the even of a perfect performance by those such as Serco, those people would always find a sideline like this to get indignant about.

  9. shepherdmarilyn

    What does it have to do with lefties Damien? ARe you happy to pay this pack $1.8 billion for illegal prisons.

  10. burninglog

    Oh he was German?!!?