This week Victoria entered the harshest lockdown so far, in the fight to restrict the spread of the coronavirus.
Premier Daniel Andrews, declared a state of disaster leading to the shutdown of most businesses and significantly greater restrictions on the operations of remaining, essential sectors. An evening curfew and other restrictions on peoples’ activities outside of their home were also announced.
As the second wave of coronavirus surges throughout metropolitan Melbourne, primarily in aged-care homes, the health impact dominates the daily news. Yesterday (Wednesday, 5 August 2020) saw a new daily case record of 725, along with 15 deaths.
Although many people are suffering more than I am, the direct impact on my family is that yesterday was my eldest son’s 21st birthday and we weren’t able to see him in person as he lives 60 km away. We haven’t seen him for three weeks and it’s likely to be another month, at very least, before we’ll be able to see him again.
An inquiry headed by retired judge Jennifer Coate into the role of security guards at quarantine hotels began two weeks ago. Public hearings start today and a report will be released in September. The inquiry will examine the extent to which Victoria’s present surge of infections can be linked to failures in the hotel quarantine program.
The basic facts, as can be ascertained to date, are:
Responsible statutory bodies
- The Department of Jobs, Precincts & Regions was responsible for the letting of approximately 5000 hotel rooms across 16 Melbourne hotels.
- The same department was responsible for the contracting out of security services for each hotel. In NSW the police and Border Force officers largely carried out these duties.
- The Department of Health and Human Services is the state agency charged with the public health response to COVID-19
The security companies
- The three security contractors engaged to provide hotel security services were Wilson Security, MMS Security and Unified Security.
- Wilson Security and MSS Security were on the government’s panel of security providers. Unified was not on the panel.
- Unified Security engaged five subcontractors to provide the required number of guards to service their contract.
The hotels and the virus outbreaks
- One of the major virus outbreaks (19 traced infections) occurred at the Rydges Hotel on Swanston Street in Carlton. Unified Security was responsible for the security at this hotel.
- The Stamford Hotel in Little Collins Street also experienced a major outbreak (43 traced infections). MSS Security was responsible for the security at this hotel.
- After the program commenced Wilson Security lost two of their four contracted hotels, although neither hotel experienced a virus outbreak. Unified took over the contract for both of these hotels.
- Unified Security ended up overseeing security at 13 hotels.
Recruitment of guards
- Due to the need to recruit hundreds of guards at short notice a number of subcontractors were engaged to fulfil quotas for shifts at each hotel. At least one of these subcontractors used messages to WhatsApp groups to recruit the necessary guards.
- Many of the guards hired via WhatsApp messages did not know the company making the request, did not formally register with the company in advance of their assignment and simply turned up at the designated hotel at nominated start time.
- The rate of pay ranged from $18 to $25 per hour. Guards were not paid as employees; they needed to supply an ABN in order to be paid as a subcontractor.
Induction and training of guards
- According to a person hired as a guard for the Stamford Plaza there was no on-site explanation of protocols, no training with respect to using personal protective equipment and no training in on-site personal hygiene. The guard was asked to bring her own mask and gloves for her second shift. She decided that the site was too unsafe and declined to return to the hotel for any other shifts.
The standards and accountability applied to the recruitment, induction and training of the security guards hired to supervise returning residents in the hotel quarantine program, would appear to be far short of the standard required to prevent the spread of the virus into the broader Melbourne population.
It’s difficult to know exactly how much this second wave will cost the Victorian economy; as much as $2 billion a week is one estimate. Given the state of disaster applies until 2 September and it’s almost certain that stage 3 restrictions will apply for at least another two months beyond that date, it’s likely that the total cost to the Victorian economy of the restrictions will be north of $30 billion.
Security companies are a, largely unrecognised, sector of the recruitment and on-hire sector. Rarely do these companies employ full time permanent security guards. The security industry’s core business model is the use of casual labour to fulfil contracts.
As an attendee at many major sporting and entertainment events in Melbourne it certainly appears to me that overseas students comprise a substantial proportion of security personnel deployed at these events.
My search of the Labour Hire Authority’s database of Registered Labour Hire Providers (3,312 companies) and Received Labour Hire Applications public register (1,978 companies) uncovered 148 companies with ‘security’ in their business name as being registered labour hire providers and a further 63 companies with ‘security’ in their business name as having registered an application
I failed to find any of the three contracted security providers in either the Registered, or Received, categories. Unsurprisingly, none of the three security labour hire firms are members of the RCSA. I doubt that more than small proportion of the many subcontractors used by the three main security contractors held a labour hire license, or had even applied for one.
It’s astonishing that the Victorian Government’s ignored its own labour licensing requirements to sign contracts with three companies, none of whom had not even registered an application for a labour hire license.
If the Victorian Government took the recruitment industry seriously then they would have insisted on the twin quality standards of a labour hire licence and RCSA membership for any security company contracted to protect the health of its state’s residents and the state’s multi-billion dollar economy, through the hotel quarantine program.
Decisions in a crisis are, by their very nature, are going to be made with less than complete information available. Hindsight will frequently reveal those decisions to be poor ones.
However in this case the Victorian Government had quality standards, one of which they had created, available to them as clear benchmarks to assist make a good decision in a crisis, and they ignored these standards.
The outcome has been many more deaths and infections than were otherwise likely, and a $30 billion-plus hit to the local economy; outcomes that were, largely, preventable had attention been paid to the necessary standards of recruitment, induction and training that the gravity of the situation demanded.