Skip to main content

S1E15 – After a career in the Gurkhas and Singapore Police, Ian Gordon founded his own private security company, IDG Security, an ICoCA Certified Member Company with operations in Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, and Myanmar. So what are the pitfalls in recruiting private security personnel from South Asia, and how does Ian avoid these? We talk to Ian about the powerful role agents play, and how this is leading to third-country nationals contracted as private security guards ending up as bonded labourers in many complex environments.


This podcast was originally published January 11, 2022

Hello, I’m Chris Galvin. Welcome to today’s podcast, which is part of ICoCA’s series Future Security Trends Implications for Human Rights. Today I’m in conversation with Ian Gordon, founder and chairman of IDG Security. We’ll be talking about Agents of Change, the role of responsible recruitment and security personnel from South Asia. So Ian, I’d really be interested to get us started in hearing about your background, where you come from. It’s very relevant to the conversation we’re going to be having later and how you ended up founding IDG.

Thank you, Chris, and thank you for inviting me to talk about this today. I was fortunate enough to serve for most of my military career with Gurkhas in the British Army. I also commanded the Gurkha contingent of the Singapore Police, and when I left the Singapore police, I felt that there was a requirement for Gurkhas to achieve their best potential in private security. And I felt that up until then that hadn’t actually been achieved because of the way they were recruited, the way they were led, which wasn’t exactly the same as the principles that had been achieved successfully in the British Army and the Singapore police. So, I thought I could change the world, of course, as every new businessman does and do it differently and I registered my company with remarkable prescience 17 days before the world changed with 9/11 and suddenly demand for Gurkhas in private security more widely became apparent.

And tell us how you ended up with the Gurkhas originally, because I understand that you were born and raised at least some of your early life in India itself.

Yes, that’s right, Chris. I was born in India. My father was a tea planter working for a large agricultural company in India after independence. And so, I stayed there until I was 17 years old. It was my home, although I did school in England, but Nepali was actually my first language really, before I managed to speak any English. So, having Gurkhas around and working with Gurkhas is something I’d been brought up with.

Now, does that make you unusual in terms of the kind of management level of private security companies? Are there many people like you who speak fluent Nepalese, fluent Hindi and know the ins and outs of where many of these people have come from?

I’m not unique. There are quite a few Army officers in the Gurkhas who have a similar background to me. Not all of them are in private security. In fact, very few. But there are also plenty of Gurkha officers working in private security who understand the value and capabilities of Gurkhas and how to get the best out of them and to respect them and look after them properly.

So, tell us a bit more about where do you operate, who do you employ and how do you go about finding your staff?

We started employing Gurkhas. That was my basic principle, and we initially had some subcontracts working for USAID and the new government in Iraq just after the invasion of Iraq in 2003. And I then had contracts from 2004 with the United Nations in Afghanistan, and the Gurkhas there quickly established themselves as the sort of people that the UN could respect. And they behaved and continue to behave with the high standards that they always take with them. And we managed to retain competitively most of our contracts with the UN over the years in Afghanistan. We also have recruited on behalf of the UN and employ a large number of Afghans in Afghanistan as well. We also have contracts in Somalia and in Myanmar.

So, you’ve obviously kind of pointed to some of the characteristics of particularly Gurkhas that are preferred by private security providers themselves and their clients. But it’s not just Gurkhas, there are many kinds of third-country nationals from South Asia, whether that’s India or Nepal or Sri Lanka, who are employed in the sector. Why do you think that is?

Think like a lot of the employment of people from South Asia in the region widely. In the Gulf in particular, but also further afield, they come from countries where there’s a shortage of work and a surfeit of labour, and they can offer their services overseas, which they do widely, not just in private security. Nepalese, for example, I think there are about 600,000 Nepalese employed in Saudi Arabia, doing various jobs from hotels and restaurants to maids and cleaners, and as far as I know, none in security. So, there is a large market for people wanting to work overseas in those countries. And a large number of businesses have been set up as agencies to get employment for them in overseas opportunities. Recruitment to security is actually only a tiny fraction of that larger picture.

So, tell us about how IDG goes about recruiting third country nationals, particularly in countries like Afghanistan. What’s the process?

Well, I only recruit Gurkhas, who are either retired in India or retired and domiciled back in their homeland of Nepal only because I don’t speak Sinhalese or Tagalog and so I don’t recruit from the Philippines or Sri Lanka. But I do understand Gurkhas, so they’re the people I recruit only because I know who they are and I know their background.

Unlike I think, a lot of recruitment across South Asia, I recruit personally instead of through an agent. And I think that’s the key difference from what we do to what the majority of other companies do. It establishes a personal bond of commitment by me to my employees and my employees, to my company. And that is a bond of care and trust and respect and responsibility both parties bear. And you establish that from the moment you interview them and recruit them yourself.

If they’re recruited by third parties, particularly in some parts of the world, sadly, the lure of money is too strong and people will pay bribes to get a job and agents will demand bribes to place people in work. And that desire to work is so strong. Poverty is so powerful in some of these countries that people will borrow huge amounts of money to buy themselves an opportunity to work in somewhere where they think they will earn themselves a fortune. So, get around that by making it a personal responsibility that myself or a senior member of my company who speaks or understands Nepali is involved in the recruitment, and that ensures that we don’t have anybody who is a bonded labourer who’s borrowed money to get the job or is in debt.

So, take us through in a bit more detail then. I mean, I know this is not what you do as a company, but this is what many private security companies do using agents. What are the pitfalls in that and of how much money are we talking about for these agency fees, for example?

The cost depends on where the individual wants to work. It can vary from a few thousand dollars for a job in the Gulf to $10,000 for a job in Afghanistan and for jobs in Europe and America. It can be several times more than that, I’m told. It’s a business that is far more widespread than just in security. So, the precedent of using agents to get jobs overseas has been well established long before security companies started to also tap into that source of manpower. It is almost the norm in these countries that if you want a job, you go to an agent and you pay the agent and then you get the job to do it any other way is almost unheard of. So, it is not like headhunting in Europe where the headhunter charges the client and the applicant doesn’t pay the headhunter. What tends to happen in these places is that the headhunter, the agent charges the client as well, but also charges the applicant.

But agents will not disclose that necessarily to whoever the companies are that they’re recruiting for, right? And so, I guess one of the questions I have is how can a private security company that is using an agency, ensure that whoever they’re recruiting are not paying agency fees?

To be honest, it’s very difficult, Chris. I mean, unless you go there personally and do it yourself, it’s impossible to be absolutely sure that the agent isn’t doing that. I’ve heard plenty of stories from people who I’ve no reason to believe they’re lying. They’ve told me that they’ve even given video statements on recruitment to say that they have not paid any money. And having made that video statement, they then moved to the next room and hand over the money. So, at the moment they gave the statement, it was true, but they know full well that two minutes later it will be untrue. And those statements are then given to the client. And there we are, none of these people have paid money.

And if they are asked later by the client, did you pay money? Almost invariably they will say no because they’ve been told that’s what they must say. So, it’s very difficult for security companies and to be honest, why should they need to verify? They have a contract in place? It’s the terms and conditions in that contract with the agent. If the agent is breaking the rules, it’s quite difficult for the security company to police that all the time. So, I don’t think one can necessarily say that the security companies should change, but something needs to change. And I’m not sure security companies will change just because they’re told there should be a better way of recruiting.

The recruiting, the recruitment is at the heart of the problem. But it goes broader than that, I’d suggest. It goes to how are the people who are recruited, treated? What standards apply to them when they are being employed by ultimately the client, which might be a government department, an embassy and so on. Does the same standard that the embassy would expect its staff to receive the same standards of accommodation, of safety, of terms and conditions of service and welfare? Is that the same standard applied to the people that the private security company is told to employ? And if it isn’t, then the private security company will apply different standards, the standards that are the minimum required by the client and meet the requirements of the client at the best possible price. And that means recruiting through an agent because that’s more economical and it’d be more expensive to do it other ways. So, the cost is the main driver and the cost is decided really by the clients’ demand of their suppliers.

Cost is the main driver. But I’d be interested to get your insight on what the price of that cost is. What’s the price, personally for the lives of especially these third-country nationals that are being employed in the sector?

Again, it varies. I’m very lucky that my client for Gurkhas principally is the United Nations. And they have obviously a desire and a wish to see the Gurkhas treated with respect, accommodated decently, looked after, insured properly, paid properly and so on. So, I’m fortunate that in that regard, the client has imposed certain standards on me and expect certain standards of me that I’m happy and willing to meet. So, I think that the real answer is can the client demand those standards of their supplier? And if the clients do, then the suppliers have to improve their offering and increase their cost. The price of it is what is the price of the additional accommodation, the better welfare, the better transport, the better equipment, the better insurance. It’s a price that the clients pay for their other staff but seem unwilling to pay for their contracted staff.

And there’s also the price, as it were, the human cost, the living standards of these Gurkhas and other third-country nationals. I’m kind of interested to hear about what are the personal costs to them when they’re not treated as others are treated as expatriate staff would be treated?

They all know they’re making sacrifices to go and work overseas. The men I employ, the Gurkhas I employ, most of them have served in the Indian army. They’ll have served typically a minimum of 17 years. During that time, they’ll have been separated from their families for long periods of time on operational commitments within India and they accept and understand that sometimes they will be required to work in quite difficult conditions. If you’ve served at 20,000ft on the Siachen glacier in temperatures of -40 for three months at a time, you’re pretty used to tough conditions. But that doesn’t mean to say they should be living in those conditions all the time. And many of them, unfortunately, are taken advantage of because they are tough, enduring and don’t complain too much.

So, how do the clients ensure that the staff that the security company employs are treated properly? And if the client doesn’t bear down on the security company and demand certain standards, then the conditions that the Gurkhas and others will be kept in will sometimes be unacceptable and that that needs to change. The case that we picked up recently with the 34 refugees in Afghanistan, who had been abandoned by various agents who had brought them into the country. Those people had been living in pretty difficult conditions in hotels in downtown Kabul, paying $5 a day for the benefit and waiting sometimes for 20 months for a job that hadn’t materialized at a cost of tens of thousands of dollars. So, those poor guys have paid a lot of money and got nothing, nothing to show for it. The Gurkhas that I employ, they know that their salary and benefits with me will be three times more than they were getting in the Indian army. So, they can save a great deal more money than they did when they were serving in the army. So, there’s quite a driver to them to want to come and work with us.

You’ve spoken a lot about clients. I would be interested to hear your thoughts on how more pressure can be put to bear on clients and, raising clients’ awareness about the true cost of making procurement decisions on cost alone. The human cost of that and how to ensure that these organizations do recruit ethically that they’re doing their due diligence and making sure that agency fees are not being paid, at least doing everything they can to ensure that agency fees are not being paid.

That’s a tough one, Chris, but I think it’s something that ICoCA can look at because I think the Code of Conduct as it’s written is focused on the supply chain, if you like, on the security companies. But I think there needs to be a similar expectation of a code of conduct for the demand chain, the users of private security. And it’s only when that duality of responsibility is achieved that standards are the same across the board for both suppliers and users, that the commercial dynamic will change. It will mean that the clients will have to pay more money for the services they get. Because inevitably the cost will increase for them to provide those higher standards of care and insurance and salary and safety and so on, which will drive up costs. But at the moment, it’s the security companies that are seen as profiteering hugely from this exploitation of poor people, from deprived countries. But actually, the real beneficiaries are the clients who get a cheaper product than if they had to go elsewhere and I think it’s incumbent on ICoCA perhaps to look at how the Code of Conduct can be applied across the board to all its members.

And your clients presumably have made the decision that they’re prepared to pay more for your services. I would assume that there would be cheaper bids coming in when you’ve gone for tenders and those haven’t won. I mean, I’d be interested to hear why you think just as you’ve made a kind of personal decision to go and recruit personally and make sure that due diligence is done, why certain clients have stepped up and said, okay, we’re going to invest more in our security to make sure that the staff in those companies are treated well.

The cost of doing it properly need not be enormous. We do it without excessive expenditure, in my view, because we still have to win contracts on price. But it’s not by reducing what we do for our staff that saves us money. We can save money in other ways and be efficient. In my view, if you look at our retention rates and turnover of staff, we’ve got a very good record and that saves me a lot of money. I don’t have to replace staff too regularly because we recruit them carefully. We look after them as well as we can and that achieves good retention. So, I think there is a paradigm that if we upped the standards, it would cost so much that nobody could afford to pay it. That is not correct. It can be done with just efficient application of good sense and good economy and yet still achieve decent standards. Now the UN provide us with accommodation within their compounds and we continually discuss with them ways that that accommodation can be improved and conditions improved and the UN are happy to accommodate that, that enhancement and to look after their critical security staff as well as they can. And they recognize that the staff are well looked after and are happy and contented their security will be better. So, it’s a win-win and it can be done.

Fantastic. Now, look, before we close, I do want to take the opportunity of asking you a little bit about the current situation in Afghanistan, because IDG has a unique insight in many ways on the situation there. One of the very few companies that did not pull out when Kabul fell to the Taliban. You still operating there? So, what is the situation on the ground? What are the main issues that you see?

Well, the main issues, I think, are not security so much as survival for the people of Afghanistan. There’s a shortage of cash, there’s a shortage of money. The harvest this year was the worst in living memory. People don’t have cash to import and buy food. And I think Afghanistan desperately needs the help of the international community to get itself back on its feet. I just hope that the dictum of an Indian sage who said that the greatest of leadership is someone who can be magnanimous in victory and gracious in defeat. And I think the West has been defeated. Its objectives in Afghanistan have not entirely been successful. And I think the worst thing we can do is now try and shun the new regime or to treat them as a pariah state because that will only make will make them a pariah state. They need to be treated with graciousness. I think the money that is rightfully Afghanistan should be given to them and any and all assistance that can be should be given to them to help them get back on their feet.

The people of Afghanistan need that. This winter could see untold deaths from cold and starvation. The UN is trying all it, all the UN agencies are trying to do everything they can. But without the international community freeing up the money held in America and Europe and letting it go back to Afghanistan, the printed cash that sits, a large quantity sitting in Europe that’s been printed for Afghanistan but not sent there. Unless these things happen, there’s going to be untold suffering for millions of people in Afghanistan and it will be a tragedy that will not just affect Afghanistan. It could in years to come have a terrible effect on the rest of the world as well. That’s my biggest concern. And I’m so glad that the UN were able to stay and deliver their services and we were able to stay with them throughout the transition period in the summer and are there to, I hope, help the UN achieve their humanitarian objectives to try and save as many lives as possible in Afghanistan.

And do you think there will be a return of many of the private security companies that were operating there before and have withdrawn? Is there going to be interest in going back and helping secure other operations, other NGOs, other multinationals? What does the future hold there?

I’m sure there will be. And if they’re there to help and support the international community to provide the support and help that Afghanistan needs, I think that would be fantastic. We’re doing our little bit, but the more that can do it, the better.

Well, I know you’re doing everything you can to kind of shine a spotlight on the situation there. We hope that the media will not get tired of this story and that they will continue to follow it. And thank you for sharing your insights today on what responsible recruitment really means in these kinds of environments. Thank you.




The views and opinions presented in this article belong solely to the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the stance of the International Code of Conduct Association (ICoCA).