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Dead Asylum Seeker Shows Dark Side of Company Securing Olympics

G4S has been implicated in human rights abuses at home and abroad, yet the world’s largest private security firm continues to enjoy impunity.
 
 
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It is said that no publicity is bad publicity, but the bosses of G4S, currently the most hated company in Britain, would have to disagree. In fact, chief executive Nick Buckles was forced to do so publicly. Hauled in front of Parliament on July 17, he was asked if the company’s reputation was in tatters and if the current situation was a “humiliating shambles.” His response was a defeated one: “At the moment, I would have to agree with you.”

It’s not the kind of talk you’d expect from the head of a multinational corporation. So what’s gone wrong? The private security firm G4S was awarded a £284m contract to provide 13,700 guards for the London Olympics, which are due to start at the end of July. Last week, with just a fortnight to go until the opening ceremony, the story broke that G4S had only 4,000 guards in place. The company’s claims that it had a further 9,000 in the pipeline were quickly drowned out among disaster stories of staff failing to turn up to venues and police being forced to step in to plug the gap.

In the ensuing panic, an extra 3,500 soldiers have been rushed in to Olympic duties, bringing the total number of soldiers at the Games up to 17,000 (almost twice the number posted to Afghanistan). Many of those troops have just returned from active service and were due to be on leave. And that isn’t the end of it – eight police forces across the UK have also had to deploy extra officers to provide security to the Olympic zone. While politicians are at pains to stress that the Olympics will be secure, this has prompted handwringing about policing shortfalls elsewhere.

People employed by G4S to work as security guards have spoken out in droves, claiming that the company failed to let them know whether they’d been hired or not, did not provide training, and did not tell them when and where their shifts were. The error means that many, having turned down other employment to work at the Olympics, will now be out of a job for the summer.

As Buckles was forced to admit, it has been an unmitigated disaster, and accordingly, £400m has been wiped off the company’s share price. Given that G4S makes much of its money from governments outsourcing “business processes” – for example, placing security staff where there aren’t enough police or prison officers – the case illustrates something of a role reversal, with public servants like the army and the police being called in to cover the gap.

Everyone in Britain has now heard the name G4S – but what is this company, and what does it do? The simple answer is that G4S is the world’s largest private security firm, with 657,000 employees in more than 125 countries. It is the third biggest private sector employer in the world, after Walmart and Foxconn. And it is no stranger to big public contracts – last year, government contracts of the type outlined above accounted for 27 percent of its £7.5bn turnover. In Britain, it already runs seven prisons and a large chunk of asylum services. The Olympics should have made 2012 a bumper year, solidifying the firm’s position as it eyes lucrative policing contracts up for grabs as public sector cuts cause an increase in outsourcing.

The company even boasts its own theme tune, a much-derided rock song called “G4S: Securing Your World,” which features lyrics like “The enemy prowls, wanting to attack/But we're on the wall, we've got your back.” A YouTube video of the apparently unironic song went viral, and has now been removed by G4S. (It’s still available on Soundcloud.)

 
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