The London 2012 G4S fiasco shows why looking after workers’ rights is good for everyone

Commentary icon26 Jul 2012|Comment

Sarah Glenister

National Development Officer, Institute of Employment Rights

26 July 2012

As London 2012 approaches, many media outlets are continuing to lay the blame at the door of trade unions for disruptions during the Olympics, but few have highlighted how one of the biggest threats to the smooth running of the Games – the failure of G4S to hire and train adequate security staff – has been precipitated by the very issue the labour movement is campaigning for: Decent pay and conditions for a decent day’s work.

In 2006, we warned in our publication Global rights in global companies: going for gold at the UK Olympics that without adequate protection for human rights and proper treatment of workers, the hosting of the Games would be beset by struggle, while the actions of multinational sponsors and contractors – the reputations of which come ready-tarnished by allegations of despicable human rights breaches across the world – would bring London 2012 into disrepute. Unfortunately, London 2012 continues to prove the legitimacy of our concerns.

For a government whose policies and rhetoric have targeted so-called ‘wasteful’ public spending ever since it was elected, the coalition has proved itself to be all too happy for the taxpayer to take on completely unnecessary costs, so long as it is big business and the richest 1% who will benefit, and not the “undeserving” poor and vulnerable. And now the public are expected to foot another huge bill, as billions of pounds go toward drafting in Britain’s already over-stretched military to make up for the mistakes of G4S. Meanwhile, ministers have promised that the huge multinational will be expected to ‘help’ towards the extra costs it has created.

Why, in a nation where over 2.5 million people are unemployed, has one of the richest companies in the world been unable to attract enough recruits? Could it be that G4S was offering salaries at lower than the market rate for roles that promise to be challenging and stressful? Could it be that the company, which was last in the news for forcing unpaid ‘employees’ to sleep under a London bridge, does not do its utmost to look after its staff?

Locog chief Paul Deighton has attempted to play the issue down, saying the army have been called in because “you can’t be absolutely certain of anything with a temporary workforce” and the “permanent, reliable workforce that we get with the military” is a preferable option to staff who he, presumably, thinks may simply leave their posts. Unwittingly, Mr Deighton has hit the nail on the head. If G4S had offered a good deal to Britain’s workforce, it is safe to say there would have been thousands of people jumping at the chance for a job in a depressed labour market, and Locog would not have had to draft in the army in case of walkouts and unreliability from unhappy staff.

Of course, G4S have found someone and something else to blame when questioned about their recruitment disaster, saying the massive shortfall in trained security guards has been due to problems with training, communication and organisation within the business, while the demeaning basic rate of pay of £8.50 per hour was what they were instructed to offer recruits by Olympic organisers.

But, as a source from the company anonymously told the BBC, it is extremely likely the poor rate of pay was a considerable part of the issue. The insider revealed: “We discussed whether if we paid more it would increase our chances of attracting more people”. This course of action was not taken, however, perhaps because the company was “incentivised to identify savings opportunities in labour costs”, in the words of Permanent Secretary at the Department for Culture, Media and sport Jonathan Stephens, who identified the salaries of workers as “a risk against the contingency” in his evidence to the Public Accounts Committee in March.

While the taxpayer and workers lose out, surely the Olympic Games is still in the name of the greater good? After all it will help support the British economy, so the government has said. But seeing as strict rules have been brought in to ‘protect the interest’ of the event’s corporate sponsors by prohibiting any business or individual to profit using the iconography of the Games, it seems like only a very small few will be benefiting from the multi-billion pound competition.

But who are they, really, who will take the most away from the Olympic Games this year? As we detailed in our “Going for Gold” publication, several of the largest sponsors have a patchy history when it comes to human and workers’ rights:

The global fast food chain – hardly fitting to cater at a competition that celebrates health and fitness – has been accused of anti-trade union conduct around the world, with former General Secretary of the International Union of Food, Agricultural, Hotel, Restaurant, Catering, Tobacco and Allied Workers Associations (IUF) Dan Gallin stating: “There are few countries where at one time or another McD’s workers have not tried to organise. There are very few where they have successes on a stable and ongoing basis.”

Coca Cola
Coca Cola has been criticised for its reaction to the violent deaths of trade unionists at its bottle plants in Columbia, who were killed by paramilitaries with documented links to the Columbian government. Coca Cola union SINALTRAINAL filed a lawsuit against the company, seeking to hold the firm liable for using paramilitaries to stem union activity, but the company has denied all responsibility.

G4S has also been accused of anti-trade union activity in countries all around the world including Kenya and Indonesia. The action of the company’s US subsidiary Wackenhut led to the firm being ordered to cease and desist its anti-union activities by the National Labor Relations Board.

To find out more about human and workers’ rights during the Olympic Games, see our employment law book Global rights in global companies: going for Gold at the UK Olympics, which is currently on offer at just £5.

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Sarah Glenister

Sarah Glenister Sarah Glenister Sarah Glenister is the Institute of Employment Rights' IT Development and Communications Assistant.