Laurie Penny writes about the company which will be policing this summer’s London Olympics: The first thing you need to know about G4S is that it’s enormous. It has 657,000 employees – more than the population of Glasgow – and is the world’s second-largest private employer, after the American retail giant WalMart. It’s also booming, with profits up 39 per cent in 2011. In Britain, G4S is the recipient of hundreds of millions of pounds’ worth of government contracts, which go way beyond the Olympics. G4S operates prisons and asylum centres across the UK, and will be moving into policing as more and more public services are cut. The company is, in fact, one of the main financial beneficiaries of the Coalition Government’s privatisation drive as the state seeks to divest itself of various expensive responsibilities.
The Government has continued to hand out lucrative contracts to G4S, despite the fact that it lost one contract following complaints, though G4S said the reason was cost. Complaints about G4S’s deportation service culminated in the arrest of three employees over the death of Jimmy Mubenga. G4S whistleblowers had already given secret evidence to a parliamentary select committee about potentially lethal techniques they said were being used to restrain asylum-seekers, including so-called “carpet karaoke” – stuffing a deportee’s face towards the floor to contain them.
This is the new face of the global for-profit security business. Outside the UK, G4S operates in 125 different countries, including Iraq, Afghanistan and Israel, where its paid agents operate checkpoints and provide security at jails for Palestinian prisoners, including child detainees. Israel, where the company’s turnover is £120m, will be the subject of the question to be raised in Parliament on Monday regarding whether the presence of operatives in occupied Palestinian territories, including in prisons that hold children, violates the terms of the Olympic charter. Palestinian prisoners and terrified asylum-seekers do not appear on any of G4S’s promotional material, but there is lots of footage of smiling people in uniform standing near sporting events.
Technically, we are not allowed to call these people mercenaries. “Mercenary” has a specific definition under the terms of the Geneva Convention, including technical conditions like being born outside the country of operation, which happens to exclude nearly everyone working for a for-profit security firm. Instead of the more loaded term, we must call them private security employees, but we could call them the Happy Fun Henchman Club and there still wouldn’t be enough national or international law holding them to account.