9 Nov 2011

Serco Hires Untrained Guards

By Antony Loewenstein and Paul Farrell

The Gillard Government's contract with Serco imposes no initial training requirements for security guards, according to documents obtained under FOI - and that's causing damage to asylum seekers and to the guards themselves

Serco security guards in immigration detention centres are not required to hold any formal security qualifications for six months, according to its contract with the Immigration Department (DIAC).

The contract, obtained under a Freedom of Information request, reveals that the agreement between Serco and the Immigration Department only requires security guards to "obtain a Certificate Level II in Security Operations within six months of commencement".

A Certificate II is the minimum security requirement for unarmed security guards, and many training organisations fit the entire course into just five days.

In the recent parliamentary inquiry into Australia's immigration detention network  this issue was raised repeatedly and DIAC officials refused to clearly answer questions about the qualifications of security guards at detention centres operated by Serco.

This is what Labor Senator Trish Crossin asked DIAC representatives:

"If you have, for example, a security guard employed by Serco at your detention centres — that is their job description — what level of qualification are they expected to have?"

A straightforward question. This was their response:

Ms [Jackie] Wilson: We would have to check that. It is a cert II or III.

Mr [John] Moorhouse: There is a cert, whether it is a cert IV or a cert III in security. They are required to have the training for their particular role.

Senator Crossin: What is the minimum? What is the level of classification that each Serco person has? What is the job description and what is their base qualification?

Mr [Andrew] Metcalfe: Essentially they are role based descriptions and qualifications appropriate for those roles. We can take that on notice.

However, New Matilda can reveal that the contract lists only two categories of guards — general security and managerial — and that general security guards are employable at the outset with no security qualifications whatsoever.

This raises serious questions about the capacity of Serco guards to manage detention centres effectively. The recent riots at Villawood Detention Centre and at Darwin Detention Centre last year highlight a growing trend of Serco staff being unable to adequately manage conflict situations.

Some guards have already blown the whistle on the consequences of the lack of training, and these reports just keep coming. The NT News recently reported that Serco staff working in Darwin's detention centre are often taking stress leave due to their working conditions. The paper noted that the Certificate II in security operations required by staff to begin work is the same as pub bouncers. One mental health nurse told the NT News that, "we were told at our induction that (Serco workers) could have been making cappuccino or pizza the week before they started. Basically they are not trained."

These conditions are taking their toll. We have spoken to a number of both former Serco staff and workers of its sub-contractor MSS who have detailed exposure to refugee trauma. Many of them reported developing mental health problems and self-medicating with drugs and alcohol. 

According to the contract, Serco must ensure that all personnel attend "mental health awareness training prior to commencing work at the facility" and "a refresher course every two years".

However, it is not specific in its requirements that staff be properly trained for stressful situations with vulnerable asylum seekers. The recent suicides at detention centres across the country highlight the need for security officers to be trained in handling such complex, stressful situations.

During the parliamentary inquiry, DIAC officers continued to stress the induction training that Serco officers were required to undertake. However, according to the contract, this training does not involve any security specific skills:

"1.1 Induction Training

All Service Provider Personnel must have completed Induction training before they commence

duty at a Facility that includes instruction in:

(a) cultural awareness;

(b) the Immigration Detention Values;

(c) conflict de-escalation;

(d) duty of care responsibilities;

(e) communication and interaction with Department Personnel, Stakeholders and other

service providers;

(f) problem solving and decision-making in the workplace;

(g) skills on interacting with People in Detention; and

(h) record keeping procedures."

This is a vague set of criteria for training — especially in comparison to the detail set out in other parts of the contract including, for example, an inventory of all loose assets right down to knives and forks.

NM asked DIAC about the terms of the contract relating to security guards. Why were the training requirements not more stringent — and why was the induction training so loosely described?

A spokesperson for the department told New Matilda, "Client support officers must hold a minimum of a Certificate level II in security or equivalent, or obtain a Certificate II in security within six months of commencement".

"The six months represents a maximum period that client support officers have to obtain a Certificate level II, and is not a period when no security training is undertaken. New staff are mentored by a qualified Serco officer during this time."

The spokesperson added: "The induction training course is aimed at equipping officers for their role of ensuring the safety, security and wellbeing of all of those within the facility — including clients, staff and visitors — as well as the physical security of the facility."

Increasing reports of violence and self harm by immigration detainees indicate that there is a growing problem in Australia detention centres. The question for Serco and DIAC is whether these problems could be mitigated with better training and more stringent requirements of the staff paid to work with these most vulnerable people.

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Posted Wednesday, November 9, 2011 - 21:26

All Government sponsored facilities having to do with people should have staff trained and employed by the Governments and they should take complete responsibility for all outcomes.

Posted Thursday, November 10, 2011 - 12:10

So, because of the conditions imposed by the government, SERCO marginally comes into the master/slave category of departmental control, does it - to be able to be FOId? SERCO bosses don't like that, do they but, like private job providers, the government contracts are far too lucrative for them to complain - or lock out their workers and clients.

Customs Officers and Federal Police have stringent training - and are paid far more than the $18 an hour the casual rate of untrained SERCO workers before and after training.

And what does 'cultural' training entail? Do SERCO workers learn languages and laws of the dominant groups/peoples? Do they respect the traditions and collective rights of those who are tribal? Are they respectful of religious beliefs other than their own? Obviously if giving birth is a ' minor' matter then providing safe and hygenic conditions for women and children would also be ' minor', wouldn't it?

This is all the very worst of neo-colonialism. With no respect for the individual and collective human needs of what we privileged westerners term ' minorities', we lose any veneer of humanity we purport to hold.

We need a Mabo-style High Court decision that shows why Australia can't treat people seeking asylum like cattle. Oh, that's right, we've accorded our cattle better human rights now, haven't we? Well, that's certainly telling the world how kind we are as a nation, isn't it?

K Brown
Posted Monday, November 14, 2011 - 09:48

Why is this an issue. Most low/semi-skilled jobs do not require a prior qualification and skills are taught through on-the-job training (OJT). Apprenticeships are the most obvious example but there are thousands of others. My wife was last year employed as a Nutrition Assistant at the Royal Childrens Hospital, Brisbane with absolutely no prior qualification. After induction training (in remarkably similar subjects to that given Serco's guards) she was given OJT, supervised/mentored in the workplace and undertook a 12 month extramural TAFE course to qualify Certificate 3 in Nutrition and Dietetics.

Her duties included preparing formula and dietary suppplements for critically ill babies and kids with compromised immune systems and potentially fatal food intolerances. She and thousands of other allied health assistants and carers in Australia's health sector perform their duties safely without any "prior qualification". I would suggest client safety and care is more critical in the health sector than the immigration detention sector???

By any objective measure this article is a "beat up"!

Posted Monday, November 14, 2011 - 10:24

Julie Faye Fuss
K Brown - you mention your wife is an Assistant and is, at the same time, completing external study to qualify herself. Sounds similar to my completion of an on/off job traineeship in the 90's.

The problem I see in the Serco instance, is that a 'security guard' can get a job as such with no qualification and is not REQUIRED to complete any training really at all until 6 months AFTER commencement. (I think that's pretty clear in the NM article above.) We've all been through 'inductions' at new job, generally not that thorough in my opinion even in large corporations, you really never know what you're in for.

So in this instance, yes I have a big problem with that, their own safety and the safety of others is definitely jeopardized. Considering the nature of the facility and things the guards may see or deal with, the heightened emotions in a place like that, I would think that all workers employed there should have some form of prior experience in a similar role and / or complete a full course to at least certify them and prepare them for the role ahead. You can't tell me the working experience a Nurse, for example, would have in a public hospital and the working experience they would have in a closed-doors mental institution would be the same. They need additional training to prepare themselves for a role like that.

The health and safety of ALL people under care in facilities in Australia is equal. I see a detention centre as part of the health sector without a doubt. Mental, physical and otherwise.

K Brown
Posted Monday, November 14, 2011 - 19:32


Your statement that "a (Serco) ‘security guard’ can get a job as such with no qualification and is not REQUIRED to complete any training really at all until 6 months AFTER commencement." is just nonsense. It is the same as saying that my wife could get a Nutrition Assistant job at the Royal Children's Hospital, Brisbane and was not required to complete any training "at all" until 12 months after commencement! Do you honestly believe that Immigration Dentention Centre (IDC) guards are recruited by Serco and then just tossed into their job with no training whatsoever?

If you read the NM articles with an open mind you would surely have realised that Serco guards undertake induction training as well as on-the-job (OJT) training and mentoring by qualified and experienced supervisors. If their Cert II course can be done in 5 days as reported by NM then I expect they did it well inside the six months requirement - don't you? I fail to to see why you should think that Serco guards should have "prior experience". Pray tell where they are to get this experience - as nightclub bouncers? After all this is a major focus of the Cert II Security course!

All workers have to start somewhere - why not an IDC?. An IDC is a very controlled environment with good channels of communication and procedures for intervention by specialist agencies including medical, mental health and policing as required.

IDCs are mainly populated by asylum seekers who arrive by boat knowing that they will be incarcerated until their refugee and security status is resolved. This has been Australian policy for more than a decade. I do not agree with this mandatory detention policy but any asylum seeker coming here by boat has to accept that this is our National position. The vast majority of asylum seekers accept this situation. A very small percentage are rejected and it is mainly these people that cause the problems . They refuse to accept Australia's rejection of their refugee/security status. Many of the agitators in IDCs are not "boat people" but visa overstayers being deported after their "refugee" claims have been declined because they have no legitimate claim for asylum. These people are in fact trying to usurp the claims of real refugees.

Sorry, I am digressing, but your comments indicate that you think IDC guards need to be mental health professionals. In my view that is absolute BS. An IDC guard is a low skilled occupation. OJT is not only quite appropriate, but essential for these jobs. Serco guard training is more than adequate when compared to other occupational sectors in the Health and Community Services sector.