A wave of protests and campaigns against G4S in the UK has swelled in recent months as the multinational security giant takes over more and more public services, from prisons and detention centres to asylum accommodation and welfare programmes. Corporate Watch takes a look at these emerging campaigns and what they are protesting against, as well as new ‘markets’ recently opened to G4S, and highlights new avenues for action.
Deporting people to death
The family of Jimmy Mubenga, who died on 12 October 2010 after three G4S security guards used force to ‘restrain’ him on board a British Airways flight during his forcible deportation to Angola, are still demanding a public enquiry that could hold G4S to account. The Crown Prosecution Service is expected to deliver a decision in a week, though this may be delayed even further. The CPS is said to have been considering corporate manslaughter charges, though sources close to the family and their legal representatives said it now seems “more likely” that the CPS will go down the route of prosecuting individual G4S guards rather than the company itself.
In September last year, the Corporate Manslaughter and Homicide Act 2007 was extended to include police forces, prisons and immigration detention centres. In theory, this means prosecutions against public or private bodies following a death in police or private security custody are now possible if it can be proved that the way these facilities, which also include forcible deportations, are managed amounted to a breach of the duty of care and caused the death.
In November 2010, in the weeks that followed the death of Jimmy Mubenga, G4S denied that its officers used dangerous restraint techniques. However, four G4S employees secretly submitted a testimony to the parliamentary Home Affairs Select Committee detailing “how some G4S guards developed a dangerous technique for restraining deportees by bending them in aircraft seats”. According to the whistleblowers, G4S managers were repeatedly alerted that “disruptive deportees” were being “forced into submission” with their heads placed between their legs. The technique, known among G4S guards as ‘carpet karaoke’, is strictly prohibited because it could result in a form of suffocation known as positional asphyxia, skull fractures and blindness. The parliamentary report found evidence of “inappropriate use of physical restraint, and the possible use of unauthorised and potentially dangerous restraint techniques”. Yet it seems G4S cannot be prosecuted under the new corporate homicide law because the Act is not retrospective.
On 12 November 2010, over 150 people marched from the Angolan Embassy to the Home Office demanding ‘justice for Jimmy Mubenga’. A smaller demonstration was also held outside the G4S annual general meeting on 19 May 2011 in Barbican, London. This year’s AGM will be held at the London Stock Exchange, (10 Paternoster Square, EC4M 7LS) on Thursday 7th June (see here). A list of all G4S shareholders, including many public sector institutions and pension funds, can be found in Corporate Watch’s G4S company profile.
A few days after the death of Jimmy Mubenga, G4S lost a bid to renew its detainee escort contract with the UK Border Agency to Reliance. However, G4S still runs three immigration detention centres, including the new family detention centre in Crawley. Evidence of systematic abuse and negligence in these prisons is not difficult to find (see here and here, for example).
Locking up children
The campaign against the role of Britain’s biggest children’s charity in the new family detention centre, run by G4S, is still going strong. Campaigners argue that Barnardo’s involvement in Cedars, which is officially described as ‘pre-departure accommodation’, is legitimising what is in effect the government’s continued use of detention for children (see here for more details).
On 23 April 2012, No Borders activists disrupted a prestigious fundraising concert organised by Barnardo’s at the Royal Albert Hall. Two activists walked onto the stage and unfurled a banner reading “Barnardo’s: ‘We believe in (locking up) children’”, mocking the organisation’s slogan. Barnardo’s Young Supporters Concerts, where children from different schools take part in a mass choir, is a regular event to raise funds for the charity. In April 2011, a group of activists disrupted another Barnardo’s fundraiser at the Museum of Childhood in east London. A list of all the charity’s future events can be found here.
In February this year, a large group of No Borders activists occupied Barnardo’s headquarters in Barkingside, Essex in a bid to speak to the chief executive Anne Marie Carrie about the charity’s involvement with child detention. Barnardo’s managers refused to talk to them and instead called the police to remove them by force (see video here).
Since Cedars opened last summer, campaigners have also picketed and leafleted staff and customers at various Barnardo’s charity shops. Barnardo’s has hundreds of charity shops and retail stores around the country.
Housed by prison guards
The new campaign against G4S taking over asylum accommodation provision in Yorkshire and Humberside is growing in scope and strength. The campaign, which sprang in February 2012 from moral outrage captured in the words of a Sheffield Zimbabwean asylum seeker “I do not want a prison guard as my landlord”, has seen a number of demonstrations and marches, such as the one in Sheffield on 1st March. A new blog, ‘No to G4S’, has been launched, and a new Facebook page entitled ‘Stop G4S’ has been set up to “expose the myriad of conflicts of interest, not to mention outright brutality, that is at the core of this corporation, and to try to actively oppose their continued involvement in global security.”
A letter signed by more than 25 academics in the fields of housing and immigration on 2nd February stated: “We believe few people in Yorkshire if they were told would believe their taxpayers money should be awarded to such a company to manage asylum seeker housing.” Trade unionists and local government workers in the region are also opposed to the scheme, partly because 60% of asylum housing in Sheffield and 30% across Yorkshire and Humberside was provided by local councils. The G4S contract therefore represents a ‘bad deal’ for council workers who would lose their jobs. A statement by the Sheffield branch of Unison said: “We oppose private security firms like G4S providing public services for another vulnerable section of our community. We are pleased to support this campaign.” Many outraged council workers and members of the council’s asylum team have now resigned or taken early retirement instead of taking up offers to work for G4S. There are indications that G4S’s endeavours to extend its ‘detention estate’ into asylum accommodation provision under Sections 4 and 95 of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999, exploiting what the company describes as ‘asylum markets’, is a pilot for long-term plans to enter the wider privatised social housing market (for more on this, see this article by John Grayson).
In Birmingham, activists from West Midlands No Borders staged a picket outside of the town hall on 28 April to protest against councillor John Lines, who they accused of playing a role in awarding the regional asylum accommodation contract to G4S. One of the banners spanning the entrance of the building read “No To Racist Scumbag Mayor Lines”, in reference to a 2008 comment by the soon-to-be-Mayor blaming migrants for the housing crisis and calling asylum seekers “scumbags”. Another banner read “G4S will screw you 2”.
According to its website, G4S has selected United Property Management (UPM) as its ‘primary housing partner’ in England. Back in 2008, when UPM was one of the nine providers of asylum accommodation in the country, Corporate Watch conducted investigations into the standards of services provided by UPM. The findings of the investigation, including interviews with asylum seekers housed by UPM and photographic evidence of poor housing conditions, will be published soon.
G4S has also announced that its ‘strategic partner from the voluntary sector’ will be Migrant Helpline, which it says will be backed up in this role by Refugee Council branches and other voluntary and community organisations across the region. Ironically, the charity describes itself as “a leading provider of quality support to migrants in distress”. More pressure can be put on these organisations to disassociate themselves from G4S and not allow themselves to be used by the company to polish its image and legitimise its business.
Profiting from Israeli apartheid
Palestine solidarity campaigners have recently stepped up their boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) activism against G4S due to the company’s involvement, through its Israel subsidiary G4S Israel (Hashmira), in Israeli prisons, where some Palestinian political prisoners are incarcerated. The company has also provided equipment for Israeli checkpoints in the occupied West Bank and Gaza and provides services to businesses in the West Bank (see here for more details).
A ‘call for action’ against G4S by Palestinian civil society and human rights organisations, made on Palestinian Prisoners’ Day on 17 April 2012 called for “intensifying the global Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign to target corporations profiting directly from the Israeli prison system. In particular, we call for action to be taken to hold to account G4S, the world’s largest international security corporation, which helps to maintain and profit from Israel’s prison system, for its complicity with Israeli violations of international law.” The callout came as hundreds of Palestinian prisoners incarcerated in Israeli jails staged mass hunger strikes in protest at Israel’s violations of their human rights and international law. Last week Palestine Solidarity campaigners held a picket of G4S’ premises in Crawley in solidarity with the hunger strikers.
BDS campaigners have been putting pressure on investors and local authorities in a number of European countries to divest or not sign contracts with G4S. In 2010-11, pressure was especially strong in Denmark, where public demonstrations and condemnations by politicians tried to get a number of pension funds and the City of Copenhagen to divest from G4S. In April this year, the European Parliament decided not to renew its security contract with G4S after 28 MEPs raised concerns over the company’s role in equipping Israeli prisons where Palestinian political prisoners are held in violation of international law. The cancellation of the contract was a significant loss for G4S, which had provided security services to the European Parliament buildings since 2008.
G4S is known to have held cash transit and security contracts with a number of local authorities in the UK, including Birmingham, Bristol and Wakefield. Palestine solidarity campaigners have already begun to lobby local councils to exclude G4S from contracts. In addition, many of the contracts mentioned in this article are with public authorities and can potentially be targets for BDS campaigners.
Worried about the mounting criticism of its Israel activities, G4S announced in March 2011 that “to ensure that our business practices remain in line with our own Business Ethics Policy, we will aim to exit a number of contracts which involve the servicing of security equipment at the barrier checkpoints, prisons and police stations in the West Bank. We will aim to complete this exit as soon as possible, but also recognise that we have contractual obligations to our customers which we must take into consideration.” The statement, however, does not make any concrete promises or specify exact dates for pulling out of these contracts. In fact, it makes it clear that “any exit from these services would not be possible in the short term.” It also means the company will continue servicing private businesses in illegal settlements and prisons within Israel.
G4S and its involvement in private prisons was one of the focuses of a recent Anti-Prison Gathering in Nottingham. The company prides itself as the first private company to open and run a prison in the UK in 1991 (HMP Wolds in Yorkshire). There are now 14 private prisons in England and Wales, holding over 13 percent of the total prison population. All are run by thee multinational security companies: G4S, Serco and Sodexo. G4S, through its subsidiary G4S Care & Justice, has the lion’s share, with six prisons under its management.
In October 2011, Birmingham prison became the first-ever prison in the UK to be transferred from public management to the private sector. G4S won the 15-year contract, worth £468.3 million. The prison was one of four state prisons to be privatised and a further four to be built and run by the private sector. Among these is Oakwood prison, near Wolverhampton, which G4S also won the contract for. The prison has reportedly been “plagued by problems” since it opened about a month ago. G4S also has contracts with the Ministry of Justice to provide more than 150 maintenance, catering, cleaning, security and energy management services to over 340 court, tribunal and administration buildings across the Midlands, Wales and the North of England.
In December 2011, the Lincolnshire Police Authority became the first police force in the UK to outsource core policing functions to the private sector. G4S won the 10-year contract, worth £200 million, and is now responsible for the operation of the force’s control centre, human resources, training, finance and custody, among other things. The company is also bidding for seven-year contracts worth £1.5 billion with Surrey and the West Midlands police forces to provide a wide range of services including investigating crimes, patrolling neighbourhoods and detaining suspects. Both Unison and Unite, the two largest public sector trade unions, warned that the radical plan to privatise policing would “damage public safety”.
When the news that G4S was taking over Birmingham prison transpired, the Prison Officers Association (POA), the union representing 550 prison officers at the prison, threatened to take industrial action over the deal. In response, the government threatened to use the military to “keep order” if prison officers went on strike. The POA had also gone to the High Court to try and block the deal, citing ‘unfair advantage’ in the bidding process as a reason, because the former chief executive of the National Offender Management Service (Noms) is now employed by G4S as a consultant. Since then, G4S’s “incompetent management” of the prison has been shrouded with controversy (see here, for example).
Another focus for campaigners against G4S’s involvement in the prison industrial complex may be the exploitation of the cheap, captive labour of prisoners. G4S has 400 prisoners working 40 hours a week in its six prisons. Thay are paid next to nothing. At Altcourse prison in Liverpool, G4S works with Norpro, an engineering firm that has converted three former metal workshops into a factory floor using 25 prisoners to produce high-quality office furniture “at an economic price”. The enterprise has apparently been “so successful”, or so cheap, that work previously done in India has been brought back to the UK and done in the prison. At Wolds in East Yorkshire, a digital marketing company called Summit Media, which started inside the prison more than a decade ago, now has a turnover of £30 million.
G4S has recently launched a PR campaign entitled “Working Prisons: Working People” to urge the UK business community to “open its mind to the growth opportunities from being involved in ‘working prisons’.” One of the “benefits to business” listed by G4S is “a committed workforce and low overheads”: “We have a dedicated workforce with a variety of skills which can work around business’ needs with the minimum of bureaucracy.” G4S hopes that ‘working prisons’ will “become the norm” in the future.
In April 2011, G4S won three contracts to run the coalition government’s Work Programme in Kent, Surrey and Sussex; Greater Manchester, Cheshire and Warrington; and North East Yorkshire and the Humber. Over the life-time of the programme, G4S is contracted to find long-term jobs for 125,000 of the 250,000 jobseekers it will receive (see here for more details). G4S has also won a £15 million contract in Greater Manchester, Cheshire and Warrington to “help England’s most troubled families”, in an initiative supported by the European Social Fund (ESF) and coordinated by local authorities.
The structure of the Work Programme allows prime contractors like G4S to sub-contract many of their responsibilities to charities and other ‘partners’ to actually do the work they are being paid for. However, G4S has good experience in supplying benefit fraud officers to housing and benefits departments to snoop out and report ‘benefit fraud’, and these ‘skills’ will certainly be put to use by the Work Programme. The scheme’s emphasis on discipline means a harshly enforced sanctions regime to ‘cut the benefits bill’, either by forcing people who have been unemployed for a year or more into poorly paid or unpaid jobs, or simply by forcing them into destitution by cutting their benefits.
One of the main differences between the Work Programme and previous schemes, such as the Flexible New Deal, is that provider companies like G4S will receive only a small upfront fee per person, and even this will phased out over three years. To make serious money, providers have to actually get people into work. But with not too many jobs around, the work that many people are being offered is often part time, even though they may be looking for full-time work. G4S will still get paid as long as the ‘clients’ stop claiming benefits. The other consequence of this structure is ‘cherry-picking’: there have been claims that G4S and other providers are prioritising clients who are most likely to find employment and passing on people with less chances of getting a job to charities.
It is worth pointing out that the Jobseekers’ Allowance regulations permit claimants to refuse to take jobs that “offend their ethical beliefs”, so claimants can potentially refuse to be referred to G4S or its subcontractors because they have ethical objections to G4S’s business practices.
The games they play
Last year G4S was awarded a £100 million contract to recruit, train and manage a “10,000-strong security workforce” to provide security at all the venues involved in the London Olympic Games this year. This turns out to be an underestimation – the Olympics security bill has almost doubled from £282 to £553 million. The over-securitisation and militarisation of the Olympics site and the surrounding areas have provided a golden business opportunity for G4S in terms of both revenue and growth. G4S has been in charge of security at the Olympics development site since 2008. The company is also expected take on an additional £30 million worth of security deals with corporate Olympics sponsors.
G4S security guards are likely to be given extra powers to stop and search, and possibly arrest, ‘suspects’. Many have also raised concerns about private security guards working (and socialising) side by side with police and military teams that will be deployed to the area during the Games.
One of G4S’s less well-known businesses is meter reading. One of the companies that contract G4S to do this work is the supposedly ethical energy provider Good Energy. The contract had previously been with AccuRead, which was acquired by G4S in 2008 and became G4S Utility Services. Other ‘ethical’ energy providers that are known to use G4S include Ecotricity.
In response to a recent protest letter by one of its customers, Good Energy claimed that it will “continually review our options for our metering service needs, however there are real restrictions on smaller suppliers like us.” “It is proving difficult,” the letter by the Junior Sales Executive adds, “to identify a metering agent that would be able to provide a national data collection service in the same way that G4S Utility Services does at the moment. And while many of the independent agencies will not offer a national service, many others are price prohibitive.” This is overlooks the ethical concerns raised by the customer and is merely concerned with economic calculations. In fact the letter claims G4S Utilities “take[s] the concerns raised by our customers seriously.” And this is apparently how the company does that: “We have already raised these concerns with G4S and requested that they send us a copy of their Corporate Social Responsibility report, which they have done. They have also sent a letter to us addressing these concerns in detail which says: ‘We are totally committed to the welfare and safety of those in our care and have won many awards for the quality of that care’.” So who could complain with hard evidence like that?
If all the unethical businesses and crimes detailed in this article were not enough, media reports have recently revealed that G4S meter readers were being used to secretly spy on pubs to check whether these were showing Sky’s Premier League football matches illegally. One worker is quoted saying: “We are told to take off our uniforms, leave our handhelds (meter readers) at home and not to make ourselves known to anyone in the pub. That’s not what I joined up for – it just does not feel right.” Sky claims that its cards are being illegally sold to pubs by dealers.
Speaking of ‘ethical’ businesses, the ‘ecologically sound’ cleaning products manufacturer Ecover was until recently owned and chaired by Jørgen Philip-Sørensen, who was G4S’s CEO and chair until his retirement in 2006. In its ‘farewell tribute’ to the man, who died in January 2010, Ecover boasted that “it is under his ownership that the company has risen to its highest successes … All of us who had the privilege of working with him were touched by his life in different ways.” Does this include his role in abusing migrants, Palestinians, prisoners and the many others who have fallen victim to G4S’s various ethical businesses, one wonders?