Profit and security at the London Olympics

G4S’ failure to meet its Olympics contract is about profits rather than a lack of recruits.

Members of the Armed Forces are shown ar
The British armed forces will have to provide an additional 3,500 for Olympic security on short notice [AFP]

G4S – the Anglo-Danish conglomerate – has put the security of the London Olympics at risk. Or so it would seem according to recent headlines.

The largest private security company in the world, G4S employs over 650,000 people in 125 countries. But the news broke last week that it could not provide the 13,000 security guards it had promised for the Olympics.

Britain’s muckraking journalists responded with aplomb. The papers abounded with stories of inept trainees asleep in classes or lacking in English. Other would-be security guards failed to spot pistols, bombs and grenades.

Certainly, G4S’ shenanigans have laid the ground for a scandal of Olympic proportions if terrorist attacks do occur.

The British armed forces now have to provide at short notice an additional 3,500 personnel on top of 13,500 already committed to the Olympics. Troops returning from Afghanistan and others who were training for deployment will make up for G4S’ apparent inability to recruit enough rent-a-cops. Real police are also being taken off their beats to fill the gaps.

Whether or not security of the Olympics has been compromised, the British public will have to do with fewer police, while its soldiers will be less prepared for their tours of duty or have their long-sought reunions with families disrupted. Other essential military tasks are also being compromised to provide personnel for the Olympics.

Back story

Athletes, spectators and Londoners are lucky that the UK still has sufficient publically provided security forces of its own to do the job. Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron’s government has recently announced cuts in the British Army from around 100,000 to 82,000. It is also forcing Britain’s police forces to privatise services from criminal investigation to detaining suspects.

A company of G4S’s size should have been able to mobilise the necessary numbers. The British armed forces number in total less than 180,000 and they can manage with but a week’s notice while conducting a war and other worldwide deployments. G4S’ competitor Serco flew recruits from London to the Australian outback to profit from Australia’s crackdown on illegal immigration.

British troops to cover the Olympics

No doubt the real back story at G4S has less to do with the failure of its recruiting process and more to do with calculations of profit. Perhaps having underbid to secure the Olympic contract, it turned out to be too expensive to actually fulfil the contractual obligations?

The basic lie behind the idea of privatisation is that private companies can provide services more cheaply than their public counterparts. Indeed, they must provide cheap services if they are to turn a profit. The public gets less for its money, while shareholders and executives bank the remainder. In this case, expensively trained and paid professional military and police will fill the gaps G4S has created.

To fully resource – or “gold plate” – its Olympic security operation would have eaten into G4S’ profits. The most charitable interpretation of events might be that the company gambled by under-resourcing its recruitment and training operation. After all, the loss of $80m on its Olympics contract will hardly register for a company that holds $1.1bn in UK government contracts alone.

Private sector efficiency?

Whatever the case at G4S, the actual security of the London Olympics has always been the responsibility of the UK’s public security forces and intelligence services, assisted by its allies. The FBI and the CIA warned of vulnerabilities at the games in December, which led Cameron to quintuple the numbers it was asking G4S to recruit.

Until just last week, G4S had been promising to “overshoot” its recruitment targets, even with the increase.

Skimping on the security of the public to make a profit is a hallmark of G4S’ operations, despite the company’s slogan “Securing Your World”.

 Inside Story – Will the London Olympics be safe?

Wackenhut, a G4S subsidiary in the US, lost its contract to guard the headquarters of the Department of Homeland Security. An anthrax threat was mishandled, entrances under-guarded, and equipment not repaired. Similar failings attend Wackenhut’s operations at US nuclear facilities. It has falsified the weapons and drugs tests of its employees. It cannot maintain proper security over the badges which allow access to secure facilities and information.

Public officials make mistakes too, but they do not systematically profit from them. Some of G4S’s mistakes have been deadly. An Angolan man died of asphyxiation on a British Airways flight while three G4S escorts restrained him. In Australia in 2007, G4S drivers left detainees locked in a scorching van, where one was reduced to drinking his own urine. The next year an Aboriginal man died in similar circumstances.

One of the hidden costs of privatisation is that knowledge and expertise are no longer retained by public institutions. Instead, they become the property of private contractors. Militaries, police forces, and other public services lose the ability and the institutional memory to conduct various tasks. Governments must then pay the price over and over again for contractors to do the job badly.

Contractors care little about developing and retaining dedicated expertise in particular tasks. They need only enough to secure the contract. Their bottom line is profit, not security or the public good. As a consequence, privatisation is a kind of “de-development”, a de-modernisation of the services government provides and which we pay for through taxes.

Naturally, corporations and their political allies tell us otherwise, that the private sector does more for less while earning a tidy profit. If a salesmen showed up at your door promising this kind of magic – money for nothing – you would know what to do.

Why then do the voting publics of the West continue to believe in the big lie of private sector efficiency?

Tarak Barkawi is Associate Professor in the Department of Politics, New School for Social Research.