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How can we ensure respect for human rights and international humanitarian law during private security operations? How can we prevent abuses? These key questions are critical in view of the growth of the security sector; they are also at the core of the mandate of the International Code of Conduct Association (ICoCA).

To address them, we need to look at people in security – the women and men interacting with the public and ultimately responsible for the provision of security services. Not only do we need to ensure that their own human rights and labour rights are respected, but we also need to recognise their working conditions may have an impact on the way they carry out their job-related duties. What if the way they are treated by their employers will reflect on the way they perform their duties vis-à-vis the public? The first global research on working conditions in the private security industry both describes the concerning circumstances security workers face and establishes a direct link between poor working conditions and the risk of abuses.

This post presents the findings of ICoCA’s new research on working conditions in private security “when the abused becomes the abuser.” It also introduces a new series dedicated to people in security.


In 2017, BBC’s Panorama investigation on Brook House immigration removal centre in the UK exposed the flagrant abuse and neglect of detained migrants by private security officers. This exposé detailed incidents of abusive language, physical assault and humiliation directed toward those detained. One former staff member reported that excessively high workloads created by chronic staff shortages led personnel who were overworked, exhausted and stressed to take out their frustrations on detainees, fostering widespread mistreatment. Some have expressed concern when PSCs are contracted to manage borders and migration as their involvement contributes to the securitization of what should remain a purely humanitarian issue. Nonetheless, questions such as the levels of preparedness and the quality of the staff, their training and their equipment are critical when they accept such missions.

Violence at Brook House captured the world’s attention but this is not a one-off incident: a series of less visible abuses, poor performances or instances of corruption could be linked to the poor working conditions of security personnel. Behind many such incidents one can identify the absence of vetting, inadequate training, poor management practices or harassment. Working conditions are sometimes so poor that they can amount to a violation of the labour rights of the guards themselves and lead to public scandals. During the FIFA World Cup in Qatar, for instance, the appalling working conditions of migrant guards were been publicly exposed and denounced. Stakeholders need not only to respond to abuses in the industry but also to take a preventive approach to human rights violations during security operations by recognising the impact of working conditions on personnel’s behaviour and directing attention toward the people in security.

Why bother? 

Today security is in high demand. Private security companies (PSCs) are deployed everywhere to protect assets and people and supplement police forces. Millions of men and women work in this industry: guards standing at gates, patrolling perimeters, manning desks and checkpoints, escorting VIPS or cash transfers. Poorly paid and exposed to climate hazards, psychological pressure or even physical risks, they tend to form one of the lowest segments of the workforce in every country. Client safety and PSCs’ ability to operate effectively are impacted by working conditions. This affects business opportunities for both PSCs and clients. Poor working conditions often violate labour laws and therefore guards’ rights. It affects the livelihoods of guards and the lives of their dependents. Finally, when conditions are poor, “the abused become the abusers.” Poorly treated guards treat others poorly, creating the conditions for human rights abuses which in turn will damage the reputation of clients that hire security providers. Surprisingly, despite the size and impact of this industry on the economy and society, working conditions have rarely been studied and never explored in full.

The ICoCA’s organizational mission is rooted in preventing human rights abuses during private security operations and promoting the delivery of responsible security services. Understanding the root causes of abuse is key for the Association in the development of guidance and training modules. During its regular field monitoring missions in complex environments, ICoCA staff identified working conditions as a key issue in the industry.

Furthermore, working conditions are not outside of ICoCA’s regulatory scope: several provisions of the International Code of Conduct for Private Security Providers specifically address working conditions. For instance, there are detailed provisions on the vetting and training of personnel, the prohibition of various forms of exploitation (child labour, human trafficking), the protection of security personnel from harassment and discrimination, and the need for PSCs to provide a safe and healthy working environment for their staff.

In 2021, working conditions were identified as a priority issue by the General Assembly of the Association and discussed by a panel of experts. By 2022, ICoCA, UNI Global Union and the University of Denver teamed up on a global research project to assess this critical yet overlooked factor in personnel’s overall well-being and PSCs’ human rights track record. UNI Global Union could provide a wide network and a wealth of expertise on this subject. The University of Denver has developed expertise on private security, centred around the extensive research of Prof Deborah Avant. The study was designed to provide key insight into trends at the national, regional and global level. We built up a team of project researchers with Anne Lauder (University of Denver) Paul Hausman and Quah Wei Vei (Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Geneva) and set out to uncover working conditions in private security.

Our research journey

Our research traced working conditions both globally and regionally. We interviewed experts from academia, civil society or private security trade associations on all five continents and also reached out to private security guards in Africa, Asia, Europe, Latin America, the Middle East and North America to ask them to describe the challenges they face at work, in their own words. This data was supplemented by surveys in March 2023 among nearly 3,000 guards across Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda, funded by a grant from the UK Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office.

We found that personnel receive low pay, work long hours, and are exposed to health risks, among other challenges. While we discovered that conditions in many places are improving, that is not generalisable across the globe and we identified the need for more concerted efforts to protect personnel. Though interviewees reported, “When you look at best practices, it’s fair wages, fair treatment, right to association and things like that,” there are still gaps in implementing such measures.  

Through interviews and surveys, we also explored the ordeal of some migrant workers hired as contractors in their country of origin and being posted in war zones such as Iraq, Afghanistan or Somalia. In contexts of Western military interventions, “White, military or special police trained men are taking on more managerial, high-up roles. More of the guarding, the convoy protection, the static guarding, the VIP protection is now being taken up by men from Eastern Europe, but also men from the Global South and some women.” Labour migrants are often subject to unethical recruitment practices and debt bondage and face disparities between what employers promise and the reality on the ground.

Interviewees and survey respondents also acknowledged racial, gender, and nationality-based discrimination in the industry. One female guard in Uganda reported that “some of our clients ask for sexual favours from us.” Assumptions around the skills that women and other marginalized identities bring forward in the industry – and overarching stereotypes about the ideal security contractor – can limit opportunities for holistic participation. Indeed, such conceptions can “reinforce these gendered and racialised hierarchies themselves. Notions of women being unable to take on night shifts in the security industry, for instance, precludes them from advancing and receiving the salary they need.” Female guards shared the difficulty of finding their place in a sector still dominated by gendered assumptions.

We also explored the value of training, which is key for shaping behaviour, personnel’s safety and the quality of services but also often insufficient. Personnel requested training on both typical security functions such as “weapons handling” and “use of force” and other areas, including “communication,” “emergency response,” “health and safety,” “de-escalation” and “human rights.” Training focused both on typical conceptions of security work and the social service aspects of the job are necessary to adequately prepare personnel for their work.

Personnel and interviewees also confirmed that poor working conditions are a driver of human rights abuses committed by the industry. We heard that “when a guard is poorly paid, poorly trained, when the guard does not see that their employer cares about him or her, well, then there is no incentive for professional behaviour.” Working conditions set the foundation for behaviour in the workplace: “bad practice begets bad practice.”

Our research also led us to identify critical stakeholders that drive working conditions in the industry. We met with private security managers who shared their frustration at not being able to pay their staff a better salary or provide them with more training when clients are pushing down market prices in a constant “race to the bottom. Reportedly, “You will see some commercial clients, certain oil and gas companies, as an example, taking a real stand on their principles and codes of conduct, but you will equally see some companies that pay no attention to the protection of labour rights,” which sets the tone for working conditions in the industry.

Governments, as procurers and regulators of the industry, also shape working conditions. While best practices and codes of conduct are valuable, “If it’s not backed by legislation, then private security companies […] are not obligated to adopt best practices.” We assessed the need for government action that holds clients and PSCs to high standards.

Interviewees were also eager about the role of ICoCA, CSOs, NGOs, unions, industry associations and insurance mechanisms in promoting decent working conditions, expressing that they “Would love to see […] organisations like yourself advising governments and indeed wider than just governments.” As in other industries, collaboration and partnership-building can drive change that improves working conditions. By assessing workplace challenges and identifying solutions, this research seeks to address human rights compliance from a novel angle, filling a lacuna in private security studies.

The policy brief summarising the main findings and recommendations of the research has just been published and presented by a panel of experts online. We will soon publish the full report as well as the results of our surveys with security personnel in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda.

People in Security

The experiences of personnel are an often-overlooked driver of the sector’s ability to protect sites, assets and people. This research both breaks the silence around working conditions and presents stakeholders with opportunities to cultivate innovation in the industry. People in security is rooted in our global research and centred around personnel’s lived experiences, focusing not only on the industry itself but on the people in it. This series includes interviews and blogs on working conditions from Mustafa Qadri, the founder and executive director of a human rights and labour rights investigations consultancy, Prof. Noah Coburn, author of “Under Contract: The Invisible Workers of America’s Global War,” Eddy Stam, a unionist and activist for the improvement of working conditions of private security guards at UNI Global Union, and others with experience studying private security, working in the industry and addressing the labour rights of personnel. By focusing on people in security, this research finds that when stakeholders invest in the industry and its people, both personnel and the general public are better protected.




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).