Got your attention? Good. After my open letter to Ed Miliband last week, although the majority who frequent this blog and follow me on Twitter were in broad agreement with my sentiments, I was also accused of holding “sixth form” views. Not exactly high-level trolling, this was still intended to be an insult. But I’ve decided to take it as a compliment.
I’ve accepted that as I get older, if anything, I become more of an idealist; that my views polarise and become more black-and-white. Corporate greed offends me more acutely. Capitalism seems less like a system we can fix. We are “Us” and they are “Them.” The ills of the world seem ever more vividly connected with the dastardly doings of a tiny minority. (The “99%” concept behind various offshoots of Occupy has really fired my imagination, as simplistic as it must seem to more nuanced political thinkers than I.)
Maybe my thinking has regressed to “sixth form” level, but isn’t there something inspiring and direct about the views we form before responsibility and mortgages and family bring the compromises of practicality to bear upon our ideals? Anyway, with this in mind, I intend to forge on, and stay in the sixth form.
I am inspired to write today by the conflation of reading the increasingly depressing stories about G4S and catching up with a little-seen film over the weekend called The Whistleblower, a German-Canadian thriller based on real events that might have been released in 2011 if anybody had been interested in releasing it. (It came out on DVD in January, so keep an eye out for it; unless you attended the handful of festivals it played at in late 2010, early 2011, or live in Germany, Brazil, Hong Kong or a few other territories where it reached cinemas, it will have passed you by, as it did me.)
The Whistleblower tells the story of Kathryn Bolkovac, a former police officer from Nebraska who worked as a UN International Police Force monitor in Bosnia in 1999, hired by private security firm fictionalised in the film as Democra. She blew the whistle on an appalling human trafficking ring, whereby young girls from Eastern Europe were shipped in to work as prostitutes in postwar Bosnia, often servicing security and UN ground and diplomatic staff, some of whom were actively involved in what was a trade in “white slaves”. (The film, starring Rachel Weisz, is unflinching in its portrayal of the violence and abuse visited upon the girls, and as such, despite its conventional thriller tactics, was probably deemed a bit “heavy” for wide distribution. It’s a tough sell, but worth watching.)
Bolkovac was hounded out of her job and her investigation shut down, but she sued “Democra”, registered in the UK, for unfair dismissal, and won, and her findings came to light. Some employees of Democra were forced to resign their jobs, but no criminal charges were brought. So, it’s another cautionary tale about the private sector doing public sector work. Which is why it dovetails into G4S and the Olympics farrago.
Democra had a $15m contract to hire and train police officers for duty. An even larger private security firm, G4S, has a £284m contract to provide 10,400 security staff for the London 2012 Games. The company boasted to its investors that by relying on “temporary managers” on fixed-term contracts, it could keep costs down. Its bid for the contract was apparently way cheaper than the others; unsurprisingly, it got the gig. Its other key money-saving/corner-cutting wheeze was to hire ground staff as close as possible to the date on which they were needed to turn up to work, again to reduce wage bills. Brilliant. This is why, just two weeks before the Games, G4S went cap-in-hand to the Government to ask for 3,500 Army personnel to help plug the gap in its security force. Many of these soldiers have had their annual leave cancelled, with no right to complain, even if they’ve just come back from Afghanistan as many of them have. Their mission, which they are in no position not to accept: to help out a private company.
You may have read about students’ experiences of applying to become Olympic security staff at the same private company, which came to light via the Student Room forum – in essence, G4S basically showed them a couple of instructional videos and handed them a high-viz jacket. I’m glad I’m not going anywhere near the Olympic venues, if these students’ experiences are anything to go by: “I passed the interview. No experience in security or anything and they signed me up for X-ray scanner … My interviewer told me I failed but I was still successful in gaining a place … The instructors made sure everyone passed … All the interviewers are barely 25, really nice and sympathetic … You don’t do much, LOL. You get registered, listen to an introduction about the Games, and then information on the role you will be doing. They try to make it fun so you won’t get too bored. There were a few who fell asleep … G4S is a disorganized, pathetic excuse for a company.”
LOL, indeed. Little wonder we’ve had to live the cliche and send in the Army. (More recent comments from students on the forum are about the sheer confusion of not knowing when their shifts are, not being able to get an answer out of G4S or discovering that they have to report for work at 5am or 6am and simply not being able to get there by train for that time. Why, if the company really wished to pay peanuts, did it not simply employ monkeys?)
G4S have argued that the use of “temporary managers” (yes, those 25-year-old interviewers who signed off all the studes) is “a common industry model”. Well, that’s OK, then. Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt, according to today’s papers, is reluctant to criticise the useless G4S – presumably because the hiring of the company reflects very badly on the Home Office, who accepted their cheapo bid in the first place. He went so far as to say that G4S had acted “honourably” by admitting to the Government that it couldn’t fulfill its brief. We now know that the Home Office was warned about potential problems with G4S as long as 10 months ago. He also said: “I don’t think this is a moment for getting into the blame game … It is completely normal that you are going to find some contractors on a project of this size who are not going to be able to deliver.” That’s reassuring.
OK, so G4S’s shares have tumbled this morning, and they are due to lose about £50m after the fiasco, while cocky CEO Nick Buckles may yet have to fall on his sword. But, as is always the way, he stands to walk out with a package of up to £21m. (That comprises his £830,000 salary, shares worth £5.7m, an £8.7m pension pot and, according to the Telegraph, “up to £5.7m shares vesting under a long-term incentive plan.”)
This is how the private sector works. It’s all about the bottom line, asset stripping, buying and selling, reducing outlay, increasing profit. But when the private sector is an employee of the public sector, the spotlight shines upon them. G4S is not a company most of us had heard of until the Olympics mess, just as we’d never heard of the similarly named training company 4Ae (who, you will recall, were coining it from the government but not actually getting people back into employment as per their brief, and accused of “multiple fraud” after multiple whistles were blown).
G4S is a big player; it is the third-largest private sector employer in the world after Wal-Mart and the Taiwanese electronics multinational Foxconn (yes, the one whose factories in China were described in a report in 2010 as “labour camps” and where workers were committing suicide). It already has its fingers in our prisons and our airports, and this is only one of 125 countries it operates in.
Unfortunately, the bigger a corporation is – and this is an objective fact – the greater likelihood that certain practices might go on unchecked in its furthest outposts. (I’m starting to wonder if perhaps amnesiac chief execs like Murdoch and Diamond are actually telling the truth when they claim not to know about what goes on in their own companies. Maybe this is how corporations work, and how they protect themselves? I’ve never run one, so I can only guess.)
While the public sector is decimated by cuts, which includes slashing numbers within the police (6,000 by 2015) and the armed services (20,000), when the private sector fails, who has to take up the slack? Nobody at the Met will be going on holiday in July and August, and now thousands in the Army will be denied theirs too. This government is cutting entire regiments from the services and at the same time telling them that they are vital. Mixed signals.
This is a government who has nothing but contempt for what used to be called – by sixth formers – the “proletariat.” I’m glad that the phrase “working class” is now being replaced in common parlance by “working people”, as you don’t need to work in a mine or a factory to qualify for the stratum of society least cared for by the government, and it’s nothing to do with class any more. What they’re pulling off here is something underhand and insidious, whose subtleties of method are gradually wearing away. This is the Prolocaust.
I saw a moving documentary called Nostalgia For The Light over the weekend, by Chilean filmmaker Patricio Guzmán, who now devotes his work to the subject of the “disappeared” ie. the thousands massacred by Margaret Thatcher’s great friend General Pinochet after the 1973 coup. In it, women who lost husbands and sons all those years ago are seen sifting through the Atacama Desert for bone fragments where they suspect the bodies to have been buried in mass graves. It made me think. In some ways it’s more honest for regimes to simply murder those who are inconvenient and not required. Just erase them, in whatever numbers they please. Stalin, Hitler, Mao, Pinochet … they may not have exactly advertised the genocide they perpetrated at the time, but they got on with anyway. (Due to the nature of their dictatorships, we could not call them before a polite select committee and ask them if they knew about their individual holocausts, but if we had been able to, maybe they’d have done what Murdoch and Diamond did, and claimed to have had no idea what was being done in their name.)
To disenfranchise thousands is just a more humane and legal way of committing genocide.
Here’s how I picture the increasingly self-parodic Tory government (which is what they are, for all the good their “coalition partners” the Lib Dems are doing): they are the family at Downton Abbey. The lords and ladies and dowagers who live “upstairs”, whose loyal staff scurry about “downstairs.” The lords and ladies are currently in the active process of reducing the wages and employment rights of their staff, but at the same time expecting them to continue to serve dinner, and launder, and tidy, and polish, and keep the fires burning, and brush the horses, and chauffeur the car, and iron the daily copy of the Times. The family know nothing of the lives of their staff, neither do they care to. As long as breakfast is served, everything must be fine.
But everything is not fine. And one morning, which may come sooner than they think, the family at Downton will come down to breakfast, and no orange juice will await them. In fact, nobody will have woken them from their slumber and offer to dress them. “Downstairs” will be silent. And what will the family do? Certainly not make breakfast themselves. They will call in the Army to come and make it for them.