Human rights is a central focus of private security work in its relation with the public, but we don’t talk often about the human rights of the personnel of private security companies. We still understand little about the conditions that private security personnel may face and the changes that can be made in the sector to improve their situation.
In this interview, Mustafa Qadri sheds light on the working conditions of private security personnel, particularly in the Gulf region, and delves into the repercussions of these conditions on both the personnel themselves and their interactions with others.
Mustafa has extensive experience in the human rights field, both as a lawyer and as the founder of Equidem a human rights not for profit. A lawyer by training, he worked in the Australian government in the Attorney-General’s Department, as a journalist, as well as with Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. He has worked on labour rights investigations involving private security guards from a number of companies in the Gulf, specifically in Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Oman. His company has conducted investigations for newspapers and is currently engaged in independent research on private security companies. Their focus encompasses labor rights, business and human rights, as well as civil and political rights.
What are the priority issues that the private security industry needs to address in terms of working conditions?
It can vary depending on what region you’re in. Given the very fact that security guard work is a 24-hour profession, the demand on the service is constant. However, labour flows and sufficient training of staff don’t necessarily meet that demand – security personal are often over-worked and underpaid A lot of the working conditions can be linked to a lack of a structured environment for private security personnel. Because it is relatively unstructured, long hours or other poor working conditions may be quite invisible to the naked eye.
The true working conditions of personnel are much harder to assess and regulate and this is an area that is ripe for research and advocacy. Equidem has done some of this in the context of our wider investigations into migrant worker conditions in the Gulf, where people especially from Africa, but also south Asia are employed as security guards at hotels, stadiums and construction sites, among other locations. We found that a lot of people from across the continent of Africa and Pakistan working in security around the World Cup, for example, experienced abuse and discrimination.
Last month we released a new report finding that workers at the heart of the United Arab Emirates’s renewable and gig sectors, and at the site that will host the UN Climate Change Conference (COP28) have left homes in Africa and Asia because of climate change only to be subjected to physical abuse, heat stress, exploitation and discrimination. One of the sectors we looked at was the security sector and one of the main complaints was heat stress. For example, a Kenyan worker employed by a subcontractor for Siemens Energy in the United Arab Emirates as a security guard described heat stress associated with her work. She said, “This job causes very serious health issues. Sometimes I am made to stand for more than 10 hours in the scorching sun, and this gives me a constant headache all the time.”
Another concern is gender. There is an increasing consciousness of the labour rights of security guards, but the gendered dimension of labour rights continues to lag. Security guards’ sensitisation to their own human rights responsibilities is also an important dimension of working conditions. Low wage and migrant security personnel are at risk of exploitation, but they are themselves people that can also unintentionally violate people’s human rights.
It’s also very important to make sure that mechanisms are in place for workers to lodge complaints, and that those mechanisms actually function. Complaints need to be addressed and addressed promptly. Equidem found that security guards employed at hotels in Qatar, for example did not receive acknowledgment when they informed senior employees about rights violations.
What do the working conditions for guards look like across the industry today?
In the Gulf, long hours and a lack of compensation for the hours of work is common. Often the gap between the supply of the properly trained workforce and the demand for their services is driving that. In private security, many employees are often working seven days a week for several months at a time. They aren’t paid for sick days, which is leveraged as a way of disincentivizing people from taking breaks. Many are surveilled even in their personal time, so their privacy rights are infringed upon.
All those points may be exacerbated by some of the demands on female security guards and their access to health services, sanitation, and the discrimination they face in the form of lower wages, harassment or being ridiculed. In the South Asian context and in some other cultures, there is a negative stigma surrounding women in public.
In some areas, certainly in Pakistan, India, and Nepal, many of the security guards are also ex-military. The military, generally across the globe, but particularly on this subcontinent, doesn’t promote respect for human rights within the institution. A lot of those practices are then transferred into the private security industry, where female personnel might be reluctant to lodge complaints. Private security guards’ labour rights protections are also very weak, and they face a high risk of exploitation because they’re working there as an individual.
How do you think working conditions in the industry have changed over the years?
The standards are pretty low, but they have changed in that there has been a general shift towards recognizing the need to carry out human rights due diligence in terms of working conditions and regulating working hours. The training and sensitisation of security staff are often not framed in terms of human rights, but in other ways, especially in terms of what the client wants and doing it as cost effectively as possible. I think it’s still pretty poor, certainly post-Iraq, there has been a slight improvement in the awareness of the risks that guards face, for example Nepalese security guards guarding embassies in high risk countries. There was very little effort surrounding protection mechanisms for these Nepalese security guards. Often they were kidnapped or their camps would be exposed to attacks. There’s been some litigation and pressure around that so that there’s been some improvement in those areas. There also seems to be a greater demand for female security guards. With that, a slight consciousness around gender and gender sensitivity in private security services has also emerged. It’s not particularly robust, but by virtue of the fact that you have more women now working in the sector, more attention has been paid to this issue.
What do you think are the various challenges in working conditions faced by workers at different stages of their work?
Recruitment charging is a huge problem in this sector, where workers moving overseas have no choice but to pay an illegal recruitment charge, which puts them in debt bondage. That puts them in a very weak position to be complaining about their conditions.
To operate a private security company in Qatar you need to get a license from the authorities, and only current or former members of the Qatar military or security services are allowed to do this. That means the security sector is entirely owned, operated and controlled by the most powerful political actors in Qatar society. That makes labour compliance and oversight very difficult. These are companies that are allowed to act above the law because the owners, the management are far more powerful than labour inspectors and the Ministry of Labour. There is also a tendency for employment conditions and work practices to be highly militarised, securitised and therefore these are authoritarian spaces ripe for exploitation.
These institutions are very powerful. There are more restrictions in the private security space on personnel being able to complain about contracts or conditions as compared to workers in other sectors. Management often responded by returning back to that whole kind of military ethos of promoting following strict orders. Guards don’t complain about poor conditions because they’re told that they are soldiers. If they do complain, then they are deemed unreliable. That often becomes an excuse to exploit personnel and treat them poorly. It also is often a very physically and mentally demanding job, but it tends to be viewed as menial.
I find that at least with the security officers that I interviewed, there was very little training or security expertise. Capacity was limited. It really focused on having someone wear the uniform. It’s a proper profession and it requires proper training and experience and knowledge of what’s required. Lack of capacity can create risks and has negative impacts on the individual because they don’t know how to manage certain scenarios.
Actually the reality of the private security industry is quite dynamic. One day you need to have 100 guards, and the very next day you may require 1000. So there’s an emphasis on just having numbers rather than a focus on other areas, such as proper monitoring of personnel. There are impacts after guards have left their jobs too. Guards often leave really mentally and physically exhausted from their job, and sometimes traumatized.
What are the driving factors for inadequate working conditions in the industry?
Broadly speaking, there are two factors. Working conditions are partly driven by the fact that the private security industry is a competitive space and there is a lot of pressure on these private companies to bring in at scale security guards to cover a range of different functions. And you’ll increasingly see a lot of local owned security firms competing with these international firms. It’s a very competitive space and the margin for profit is very low. Competitive market pressure leads to poor conditions.
The second driver is indifference toward working conditions. If you look at the way often private security companies are structured, it’s highly racialized. It’s either Western expats or local nationals, often from the military elite, that are running, and owning these institutions. And then you have these degradations of different nationalities playing different roles. You often have East or West Africans or Pakistanis at the lieutenant level sort of officer level staff, whereas other nationalities will be relegated to the menial roles. Personnel are treated on the basis of their nationality and stereotyped as such. Individuals with a background in Special Forces or the officer corps or being skilled military personnel, receive a certain kind of respect and better working conditions as opposed to someone else who doesn’t come from that background. When Western states set up embassies they place personnel who aren’t from a Western country on the frontlines first because that carries with it less liability and reputational risks. If a non-Western worker is injured or killed, a case is less likely to arise from it. They can pay the family less if they die.
Another reason why these companies treat their employees so poorly is they believe they can get away with it and historically speaking they have. Because security is not a consumer good, there’s less of a risk of any reputational harm to equate to any loss of business. Take G4S for example – despite numerous controversies, documented widely throughout international media, they have faced little repercussions.
I’ve also been struck by the disconnect between the management level and the ground level of private security, which is not that dissimilar to the military. The reality on the ground often doesn’t make it into reporting. The management of security companies often has little or no idea about the ins and outs of how their work is actually operating and how they recruit and the internal structures of power and other factors related to working conditions. Yet at the same time, management exploits the fact that people from the poorest countries are desperate for work, and the labour market is inherently discriminatory, and wages and work terms can vary greatly for different nationalities or based on gender. Indifference and discrimination based on nationality and gender is, I suspect, by design because it is a way of keeping the workforce divided. Any attempt to standardise employment terms or working conditions to account for equal opportunity would require the management to confront and address structural issues, so there is little formal due diligence with respect to human rights responsibilities.
Is there a link between poor working conditions of private security personnel and their respect for human rights of the public?
Yes, of course this operates on a context specific basis. In the Gulf for instance, security guards overall are very cautious about how they treat members of the public but generally, the exploitation of private security guards can be linked to their exploitation of others. When exploited guards see opportunities to exploit others, they are likely to replicate or react to the way they are treated in the way that they treat those people. That is the way in which guards understand how to incentivize people to do what they want them to do, or they are also aware that there are many hidden spaces in which regulation is lacking.
Another element in areas where there’s a bit more political freedom than the Gulf is that security guards are often protecting people with a public profile or protecting government institutions. If there’s a protest or a rally, security guards might physically assault or abuse the people whom they interact with. In that case, it is about having power in an environment where there is very little oversight. That’s then the way that security guards might project their authority. Cases of abuse are very context specific, and I would argue it’s not necessarily systematic, though, it can also be a product of organic processes rather than systematic ones. In other words, these realities do create an enabling environment for human rights abuses involving private security guards through lack of adequate oversight or regulation.
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).