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Lock-down lunacy: How we stuffed it up

If the stories are true some of these guards thought social distancing was a sexual position from the Kama Sutra.

Rather than enforcing a strict 14-day lockdown it appears guards’ training consisted of watching reruns of Hogan’s Heroes.

This is not a security guard.

This is not a security guard.

One young Pan Pacific Hotel quarantine guest, resplendent in bike shorts, took advantage of a sunny winter’s day to escape and take selfies performing a series of impressive handstands at South Wharf.

If there was a Coronavirus Olympics she would carry the flag.

Others believed the quarantine stretched to riverside coffees shops with lattes constituting emergency supplies.

These (and other) breaches were reported to a senior government official who did nothing. Only after the spike was the system reviewed.

Many of the hotel guards were not adequately briefed on the use of PPE, hospital-standard hygiene and social-distancing protocols.

Guards and police at the entry of Crown Promenade hotel late in June.

Guards and police at the entry of Crown Promenade hotel late in June.

There is to be a judicial inquiry into how the government chose (without tender) the three companies selected but a separate government investigation has already established the industry is a basket-case.

One of the companies selected, Unified Security, has a most excellent website listing its most excellent services, which includes specialising in high-rise buildings. Perhaps that was a selling point in dealing with quarantine hotels.

“Grasping the unique security requirements of commercial and high rise entities gives Unified Security Group a distinct edge over our competition,” the website says.

But opening the door for a lady taking her poodle for a walk is different to dealing with a pandemic.

Its Melbourne office is modest – a two-storey business unit next to the Blackburn Hotel in Whitehorse Road. In the carpark were two company four-wheel-drives in Indigenous livery. (The company declares, “Unified Security is proud to be Australia’s largest wholly Australian and Indigenous-owned security company.”)

There are about 7000 security businesses in Australia, nearly 150,000 security officers and the industry is worth around $8 billion.

While the three selected security companies have established track records there are more cowboys in the industry than roam the Montana prairie after spring rains.

As one expert told us, “It is far too easy to start a security company.”

Some bid for contracts without the required level of staff then furiously subcontract, meaning those who pay the bills don’t know who they are employing.

In a VCAT case highlighted in a recently released government private security industry issues paper, a trainer was providing shonky security guard and crowd controller qualifications.

The three-week-course supposedly involved 128 hours of face-to-face classroom commitment. For the right price a student was given the answers to copy into the 218-page assessment book and would graduate in a day (two for the slow learners).

One student said the first-aid training was completed in ten minutes (BAND-AID 101).

A fair sign it wasn’t on the up and up was when police arrived 100 students simply ran away (ESCAPE 101).

In simpler times police would walk the beat in strip shopping centres, patrol industrial sectors and create a visible presence at football and festivals.

More than 30 years ago police brought in a user pays system for privately promoted events. If you want the cops you pay the bill. An officer is $172 per hour, it is $130 for a sub-officer and $100 for a street cop. So if you have 100 police at a footy game it costs just over $60,000 – well over twice the cost of a private service.

(How things have changed. When I worked at the Croxton Park Hotel in Thornbury the going rate for a table of police during a Rose Tattoo gig was three jugs per hour and a Chicken Maryland per head.)

Price is the problem. Legitimate companies say it costs $41 per hour to provide a properly trained, equipped guard while paying taxes, Workcover, penalty rates and leave components. The minimum to make a profit is $46 to $48.

Yet some are offering services at $34, which means they are cheating by paying cash-in-hand or failing to pay government charges.

(Bikies have provided nightclub security on a less formal basis, but they want a slice of the drug trade inside.)

Some guards say they are paid $20 an hour, receive no briefings, have to fend for themselves, have had pay cuts without notification and are expected to be permanently on-call.

One subcontracting security business wrote to a national provider claiming they had 40 professional guards ready to deploy. The trouble was their Workcover policy was for one worker.

The boss of a security business was seen driving his luxury car to contracted interstate shopping centres to pay staff from (recyclable) brown paper bags.

The cash business leaves workers exposed with few rights. It also allows guards to double dip. Some on sick leave for allegedly work-related injuries have been found working for other companies for undeclared cash payments.

Many of the rogues split along ethnic lines, recruiting from groups desperate for work and unaware of labour laws.

A report by the Australian Security Industry Association Limited said a substantial number of major clients turn a blind eye to companies breaching awards. “These customers are very often involved in hospitality venues and all levels of government.”

Just recently a private security company was awarded a contract involving a major building project with a bid 25 per cent under the accepted rate.

The big businesses and government agencies that employ the cut-rate cut-throats are complicit. If someone offered you a luxury car for next to nothing you would smell a rat.

As the ASIAL report says, “If it is too be true then it is probably isn’t true.”

One executive from an Australia-wide client acknowledged, “We drive the price down. We screw them.”

Several of the big players, sick of being undercut by cowboys, are experimenting with robots for nightworks to provide a cheaper security presence.

The security business is a vital first step employer for newly arrived migrants. As GMH, Ford, Gas and Fuel and SEC provided jobs for migrants in the 1950s and 1960s the security business does now.

(Back then new arrivals lived in Nissen hut camps rather than locked down in high-rise buildings. The one at East Preston next to the brand new Northland shopping centre was near where I played junior football as a frightened wingman.)

An interesting twist. About six years ago private security guards in shopping centres frequented by African youths were near powerless dealing with organised shoplifting.

One company employed a Sudanese youth worker team leader who managed a team of mature and competent security guards of African descent. The conflict in the centre plummeted.

In a shopping complex near the Gold Coast there was a spate of crimes involving young Pacific Island and Maori males. A qualified guard (and part-time preacher) of Pacific Island descent was appointed security manager and the number of offences dropped markedly. He also organised youth outreach programs.

In Sydney’s west where there is a strong Islamic community Muslim security guards are valued earning reputations as reliable, calm and composed.

The government issue paper says there remain concerns about “sham contracting, insecure work, and underpayment of wages and superannuation in the industry”.

The line between the public and private sector was blurred years ago. Today it is all about partnerships, synergy, and lactose-free hot drinks.

Private security services are often now the first responders to factory alarms, health scares, fights in clubs or intruders in private houses.

The government position paper says that in New York and Britain private security and police co-operate to identify, “serious threats to public safety, such as terrorism”.

Security staff “are uniquely placed in the centre of busy streets and events and are better able to notice when incidents or suspicious activity occurs”.

One of the greatest threats we face is from international interference including cyber attacks or buying into companies that possess sensitive material.

One of Australia’s most respected security firms, Securecorp, was sold to Chinese interests in 2016 for $158 million.

Staff were surprised when a Chinese government delegation arrived and was given direct access to the ultra-secure data room. A data room is not particularly interesting. It has a big machine with a few blinking lights and not much else.

What is in the Securecorp data room computer is interesting – such as CCTV cameras through Melbourne, the MCG security blueprint and data on major government buildings. Oh, and the details of the Australian Electoral Commission.

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