security guard coronavirus outbreak
(Image: AAP/Scott Barbour)

There’s one question Victoria Premier Daniel Andrews just won’t answer: why his government decided to appoint security firms rather than the army or police to guard travellers in quarantine — a misstep thought to be a major factor in COVID-19’s renewed spread through Melbourne.

We think we know why.

An Inq investigation into private security firms reveals the government has been acutely aware of the industry’s record of dodgy behaviour going back to at least 2015, but it and the industry have failed to rein it in. 

In mid June, as hotel quarantine cases had well and truly breached security and made their way into the community, the Andrews government quietly kicked off a long-promised review into Victoria’s private security industry.

As they say, you wouldn’t read about it. But you are.

The review stemmed from a pre-election promise made by Andrews in October 2018 to the United Voice union — now United Workers — which covers security guards. (The union has lost influence in the sector which relies in part on outsourced and piecemeal labour.)

The official announcement said the aim was to “raise industry standards, improve safety of employees and the community, and ensure workers are paid properly and fairly”.

A review discussion paper raises whether “probity and professional development requirements meet expectations” and whether “training and competency requirements meet expectations and best practice”.

The review also zeroes in on union concerns about “insufficient training and support (including inadequate equipment)” and sham contracting, as well as industry concerns about shoddy operators.

Unfortunate timing

The review’s timing — with a report due in December — is unfortunate to say the least, given the serious claims which have emerged about the way private security firms breached containment procedures at Melbourne’s Stamford Plaza hotel in particular, a breach considered responsible for at least 50 cases.

Testing indicates a security guard as the source, and linked to the a family cluster in outer south-east Melbourne.

The claims, not yet corroborated, include that security staff:

  • Had sex with returned travellers
  • Wore the same personal protective equipment for up to eight hours
  • Shared lifts and shook hands with guests
  • Allowed quarantined families to move between rooms to play cards with others.

Claims have emerged that guards received as little as 10 minutes’ training in how to contain the spread of COVID-19, that several subcontractors were used with varying training levels, and that one guard was paid $20 an hour, cash in hand.

Yet, as Inq has discovered, these claims of shoddy practices are similar to claims made in 2015 when the Andrews government, concerned about the exploitation of workers in piecemeal insecure work, ordered an inquiry into labour hire.

That inquiry heard that private security services in Victoria were “almost entirely” supplied by contract security firms and that there was a “growing practice” for those firms to use subcontracted labour. One security industry worker told the inquiry: 

“I was employed through a labour hire agency. An under $20 flat rate, for all hours and shift lengths regardless of warning, overtime, casual loading, night loading. No roster, 24/7 on call. The company I work for changed its ABN and business name every three months without warning. They cut our pay with no warning. I just noticed a lower pay rate in my payslip and asked, and that’s when they told me we had a pay cut.”

The inquiry lodged a hefty set of recommendations in a 424-page tome with the Andrews government in August 2016.

As that report landed, yet another inquiry kicked off, this one commissioned by the federal government at the end of 2016 covering migrant labour, insecure work and wage theft in various industries including private security firms. 

The migrant workers taskforce, chaired by Professor Allan Fels, singled out the horticulture, cleaning, meat processing and security industries for special attention. 

By the end of 2018, the Andrews government had introduced the Labour Hire Licensing Act 2018 to combat labour exploitation and dodgy labour hire operators.

It established an $8.5 million independent statutory body, the Labour Hire Authority, to implement laws which included tougher registration requirements for labour hire operators and a requirement that any “host” company using labour hire firms must use a firm registered with the authority.

Tried-and-true ALP friend appointed

The Andrews government appointed Steve Dargavel, a tried-and-true friend of the union/ALP complex, to a five-year term as commissioner.

Dargavel had a career spanning close to 30 years as an official at the Australian Manufacturing Workers’ Union, starting as an organiser and finishing as Victorian state secretary. He also had a 12-month stint as an ALP member of federal parliament after being shoehorned in via a byelection.

Dargavel has been in charge of the Labour Hire Authority for over 18 months, but it would appear little has changed in the security industry given there is yet another review under way as of June. The authority has not responded to Inq’s emailed request.

The security industry’s professional body, ASIAL, has told security firms they must abide by the new laws when engaging temporary labour — and at the same time has decried the legislation as confusing.

Security firms MSS Security and Unified Security, named by Andrews in connection with the botched hotel quarantine work, are both members of ASIAL. Neither responded to Inq’s questions.

ASIAL told Inq: “Without access to specific knowledge of the contractual arrangements and dealings in place for the Victorian hotel quarantine program, it is difficult to make a definitive statement regarding allegations of subcontracting and cash payments.”

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