G4S – coming soon to a social welfare office near you (human rights record notwithstanding)

The world’s largest security firm, G4S, is currently seeking partners for a tender issued by Ireland’s Department of Social Protection for Jobpath, a program aimed at getting long-term unemployed people back to work. G4S is “the world’s second biggest private employer” and one of its principal activities is outsourcing – the company would likely not implement Jobpath itself, should it succeed with the tender, but will rather contract this out to local “providers”.

Concerns have been raised regarding the privatisation of social welfare services, which can be considered a core State function, and protesters at the Department of Social Welfare sought to highlight that such employment schemes are an insufficient alternative to actual employment. The Government’s Jobsbridge internship scheme has also received similar criticism, and clear instances of exploitation have recently seen the scheme labelled ‘Scambridge‘ by activists.

The potential awarding of a contract to G4S also raises the issue of the relationship between Government procurement and human rights. Should the State insist that companies it does business with have a good human rights record? The Belfast-based NGO, Participation and the Practice of Rights, has said that the considerable amount of money spent on goods and services “can assist government to fulfil their human rights obligation to progressively realise the right to housing, health, employment and education”. In the 2012 report Business and Human Rights in Ireland, the Irish Centre for Human Rights recommended that:

The Government of Ireland should require human rights compliance and reporting by business to be an eligibility criterion for public procurement contracts or State investment.

In contrast to the Irish Government’s inactivity in this regard, the Netherlands has committed to undertaking an assessment of whether its sustainable procurement policy is in line with the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.

Human rights and procurement is especially relevant in the context of the bid by G4S for the Department of Social Protection contract. The company has been heavily criticised for how it has operated around the world. Here are just a few examples:

  • G4S staff have been accused of abusing prisoners in South Africa, according to the BBC. Amid accusations of prisoners being subject to electric shocks and forced injections, the Government has taken over the running of the prison. Earlier reports from South Africa alleged that G4S-run prisons saw prisoners held in isolation for up to three years.
  • The company has controversially provided security services to illegal Israeli settlements in Palestine and prisons in Israel. It is facing a major investigation by British authorities based on the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises.
  • The UK’s National Audit Office found that G4S failed to meet contractual standards in the provision of accommodation for asylum seekers. The British Government is seeking around £3 million back from the company.
  • The company notoriously failed to provide adequate security personnel for the London 2012 Olympics, requiring the army to step in, and G4S has since suffered an estimated £88 million loss on the contract.
  • An asylum seeker being deported from the UK, Jimmy Mubenga, was “unlawfully killed” onboard a plane bound for Angola after having been restrained for half an hour by three G4S guards.

There have been repercussions for this poor human rights record, with the company reportedly losing a contract to provide security with the European Parliament. G4S itself has decided that it will discontinue some of its contracts with Israel relating to operations in the occupied territories.

There has been very little commentary in the Irish media about the possibility of G4S gaining this contract, aside from a highly praiseworthy Irish Independent article. It was suggested that the company’s involvement might “revolutionise our welfare system”. Although there is simply not enough jobs in Ireland at the moment, the author considers that “our jobs market is slowly starting to recover, but we need an energetic means of transferring people into it”. As to the various scandals the company has been involved in, these are simply dismissed:

… quite frankly, a global company with almost 700,000 employees, and especially one extensively involved in security, is bound to be involved in controversies somewhere.

G4S already has considerable operations in Ireland, and having won previous government contracts, the company is in a strong position for this Department of Social Protection tender. But were an ethical procurement policy to be adopted, privatisation aside, then scrutiny of the company’s human rights record to date would certainly give pause for thought.

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