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Issue #1476      13 October 2010


Serco – feasting on social decay

Thirty-six-year-old Fijian Josefa Rauluni died in a fall from the roof of the Villawood Detention Centre last month. Detainees had been taking part in a protest about their lengthy detention. The tragedy has prompted some pretty fundamental questions to be asked of the federal government. Why are private contractors running sensitive government facilities like immigration detention centres after all the negative experience during the Howard years?

Who owns and runs Serco, the company with the contract to run the centre, and why have they been selected to take over a host of government functions? Where is all this heading? A look at Serco’s role and reputation on its UK home turf throws some light on these issues but it is not a reassuring exercise. Serco and other outsourcing firms are making a bundle out of ongoing privatisation and the social decay it is causing.

Serco started life in 1929 as the British division of the Radio Corporation of America. It was eventually listed on the stock exchange and began its inexorable rise as a result of the Blair government’s privatising binge. It has not looked back. It runs prisons in the UK and the US. It runs border security services and is building military hospitals in Germany. It offers an “information management system” to upload all the data required by the British government’s name-and-shame school reporting system. It runs Britain’s Skynet military communications network. It even runs buses in Adelaide.

The “secret” to Serco’s success is no secret. It steps in to administer services for governments wanting to downsize and ultimately abandon all their social functions. The savings are achieved by skimping on standards and screwing workers. Bin workers in Sandwell in the UK are currently engaged in a fight to prevent Serco becoming their employer from November 1 as a result of a pay-slashing deal with their current employer, the Borough Council.

Serco is angling to take charge of a Cameron government scheme to have a land army of tens of thousands of convicts employed on huge industrial projects – private projects. The choice will be slave labour or imprisonment in one of Britain’s overcrowded and brutal prisons. The concept is a clear violation of international conventions on human rights but objections are being drowned out by the “tough on crime” mantra.

On the subject of British prisons, The Sydney Morning Herald (SMH) recently carried a piece about Serco entitled Firm that does the dirty work for government on the cheap. It reported:

“In 2004, Adam Rickwood, 14, who was locked up in a Serco ‘training facility’, became the youngest inmate ever to die in Britain. He killed himself six hours after being subjected to a ‘nose distraction technique’, described variously in a hearing as being a squeezing, tweaking, flicking or karate-like chop to the nose.

“Last year an investigation by the Children’s Commissioner for England, Sir Al Aynsley-Green, found children in the Serco-managed Yarl’s Wood immigration detention centre were neglected or even treated cruelly. He found children were denied access to critical health care, while force had been used to separate children from their parents. Diabetic children had been left untreated and an eight-month-old baby with asthma was neither treated nor given an inhaler.”

This is the company chosen to manage an Australian immigration detention centre. In a follow-up to its coverage of the Villawood tragedy, the SMH reported that centre management had placed rooftop protestors in maximum-security isolation as punishment. A hunger strike was ongoing.

Australians should be outraged that state and federal governments are continuing down the path of privatisation. Make no mistake; governments committed to maintaining crisis-ridden capitalism (like Australia’s) are still moving to eventually privatise (“reform”) everything – health, education, “defence”, everything. Should this goal ever be achieved, the avenues for recourse for unjust treatment are steadily closed down. The only “judge” of right and wrong becomes the capitalist market.

Vultures are circling over the people’s assets and hard-won gains. “With the recent substantial increase in fiscal deficits, governments are increasingly seeking new ways to fundamentally transform the efficiency and productivity of essential services,’’ Serco chief executive, fundamentalist Christian Christopher Hyman, wrote in Serco’s last annual report.

Next article – Welcome to Jorge Gonzalez Castillo

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