Regulating private security firms

It took two years after former President Bharrat Jagdeo assented to the Private Security Services Act (2009) for the Order actualizing its provisions to be signed by the Minister of Home Affairs. The purpose of the legislation is to bring a sense of order to the private security sector and to formally absorb it into the national security mainstream. It lays down procedures for the establishment of private security firms,  and sets more demanding operating standards in the sector. Oversight responsibility now rests with the Commissioner of Police.

Security guards outnumber police officers – by at least two to one – are highly visible, function in positions of trust and are the primary source of protection for commercial property. That makes their role important. We rely heavily on their integrity and their judgment and they face many of the same risks as police officers though their levels of income, job security and training are appreciably lower. That having been said government has neglected to set minimum standards of recruitment, screening and training for private security officers.

As Minister Rohee put it after he signed the Order,  the legislation sets out to “ensure compliance, establish standards, prevent exploitation and target elements that wish to tarnish the private security services in Guyana.” These are commendable objectives though, given its own deficiencies in the area of standards, one wonders whether the Guyana Police Force  (GPF) is up to its new oversight role being itself in need of serious overhaul.

It is also worth wondering whether any new criteria for the creation and licensing of private security services will be strictly adhered or whether it might not become infected with the curse of corruption; and if the Minister of Home Affairs disapproves of this enquiry we can only say that it is being made in keeping with the propensity for the giving and taking of bribes and kickbacks in some transactions that require official approval. One might also add, again for the benefit of the Minister, that some security firms have themselves been almost wholly responsible for the sector’s less than salutary image.

Five or six years preceding the passage of the Private Security Services Act (2009) the GPF was confronted with serious challenges resulting from the crime wave that had been unleashed against the citizenry. Its long-festering deficiencies had become exposed to public scrutiny and it then became clear that it could not offer an effective response to a well- organized, well-resourced crime wave while, simultaneously performing its routine law-enforcement functions. That period spoke to the need for the private security industry to hold up its end. It some respects it didn’t. In fact, during the crime wave the head of a private security company conceded that people appeared unwilling to sign up for jobs as security guards.

It was at that point that we really began to recognize the private security sector for what it was – a weak, underequipped institution whose capacity was limited largely to providing ‘a presence’ at locations.

Private security were being contracted by both state and non-state entities primarily to provide guard duties at both high-risk and low-risk premises including business premises and, in the case of the state, schools, hospitals, regional offices and private residences used by state employees.  Some of the better-appointed firms were providing more specialized services including payroll security, business-to-bank deposits and personal bodyguard services. The capacity of private security services to help respond to the crime wave was strictly limited.

The weaknesses reposed in the manner in which these firms had been formed and allowed to function. Some of them were run by  people who had no experience in the sector; recruitment policies focused on securing ‘bodies’ to ‘keep watch’ rather than on acquiring personnel who were keen, responsible and trainable. In one instance, around 2000, a newly established security service, the management of which had no known previous experience in security matters was assigned a multi- million dollar contract to provide security services for state installations in the ten administrative regions.

The lawlessness that stemmed from the absence effective oversight was excessive. As the demand for security guards has grown the sector appears, increasingly, to have become a ‘hustle’ that manifests itself in malpractices that include the submission of claims to the state for payment for services that were never provided; the placing of ‘ghost guards’ and payrolls; fabricated overtime claims and other malpractices designed to defraud the state treasury.  Some of these occurrences were underpinned by corrupt collusion between the private security firms and the state officials charged with verification of pay claims.

The management of some private security services reflects a mixture of incompetence and exploitative practices. Apart from being among the chief culprits in the non-payment of employees’ NIS and income tax contributions, some security services are unrelenting in the exploitation of guards, compelling them to work extra hours without relief and in many cases without pay. Disciplinary regimes sometimes comprise regulations fashioned with the sole intention of reducing even further their already meagre wages for what in many cases are contrived transgressions.

Women security guards endure untold exploitation at the hands of predatory supervisors. They complain about extortion, sexual harassment and about having to give sexual favours to Checkers in exchange for having transgressions (like sleeping on duty or leaving the location unattended) overlooked. The Ministry of Human Services would do well to investigate these claims if it is serious about exposing instances of the mistreatment of women in our society.

If we are to give effect to the provisions of the Private Security Services Act, we must significantly address operating standards in the sector. Simultaneously, we must ensure that the GPF, on account of its own higher operating standards, is equipped to mentor the private security sector.  With regard to the first issue many security guards are not particularly well-trained and de-motivated by their conditions of work, not least, their pay. With regard to the matter of GPF in its role as the oversight agency, the Force needs to take a hard look at itself. In other words the acceleration of the much talked-about reform of the GPF would much better position the Force to properly play that mentoring role.

One expects, for example, that the GPF, in its oversight role will pay greater attention to higher standards of service, proper supervision and transparency in matters pertaining to billing the state for services provided. Guards, of course, must be better-paid. Many security firms operate at a considerable profit though in some instances they are guilty of the most shameless exploitation of their guards.

There have also been cases of arbitrariness in the awarding of state contracts to private security firms. As mentioned earlier- one would hope too that the new dispensation does not open up new vistas of questionable practices and corrupt acts – the potential for which may now exist to an even greater extent than previously. In this regard, it should be noted that the move to place the responsibility for the licensing of private security services under the GPF comes at a time when criminals are once again targeting the business community and when the anticipated commencement of large-scale operations in the gold-mining sector by expatriate investors is likely to give rise to an even greater demand for private security services. In that context, we must hope too that the new dispensation does not witness inappropriate interventions, including influence-peddling by well-placed state officials, to secure lucrative contracts for hand-picked security service providers, which practices of course, will open up yet another avenue for bribes and kickbacks.



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