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Human Rights and the Private Security Industry

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Wednesday, 17 January 2018
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This article was originally posted in LinkedIn on 24 May 2016:

In recent days I have been thinking a lot about human rights assessments in the extractive industry, but more and more about human rights in general and how it applies to my life, personal and professional. 

While cognisant that through regular assessments of human rights impacts, multi-national companies proactively shape a strategic approach to human rights, based on relevant risks and opportunities both within the company and along their supply chain; in recent days I have been thinking about how human rights play a role specifically in smaller companies and SMEs and in their supply chain.  In particular, I am thinking of the human rights infringement risks involved in private security for home owners associations.  In South Africa, home owners associations (HOA) generally refers to a number of houses grouped together in a walled-in complex, and the association operates as a company.  All HOAs contract private security firms.

As housing complexes mushroom all over the country – one would be hard-pressed to find any new suburb in any of the big cities that still caters for the large plot with one individual household on it – so does the private security industry.  Every company, whether a large multi-national, an SME, or a home owners association, has the responsibility to treat all human beings with respect and dignity.  Operating without infringing on human rights is one of society’s baseline expectations of business, it is an ethical imperative.

While in my professional life, the assessment of a company’s policies and operations through a human rights lens has become nearly second nature, and so has integrating human rights principles and human rights into any social impact assessment I undertake; in my private life, it has been an uphill battle.  When I bought my current house in 2013, I automatically became a member/shareholder of the home owners association.  During the first few months in my new home, I noticed that the security guards, who are supposed to guard me and my property, never appear to have any days off and that their work station was a very unpleasant and messy area.  

Upon investigation, it turned out that the company for which they worked, although duly registered with all the correct authorities, followed none of the laws and any complaints I lodged with the Private Security Regulatory Authority (PSIRA) were acknowledged but no action was ever taken.  My next stop was the HOA to enquire why we, as the company contracting the security firm, were not taking any action against the company for human rights (and other) infringements.  “It is not our problem how they treat their employees”, was the answer I received from the HOA Board of Directors.  No amount of pointing out the risks involved in having security guards who are working like slaves, who are sleep-deprived and who are not paid as per government regulation, made any difference.  The only option left was to get nominated and voted on to the board myself and to address this matter from day one.

The initial approach was to work with the service provider to change their ways and follow the law: appoint a third guard to allow the guards (who had been working six days a week 12 hour shifts and on the seventh day, a 24 hour shift with no break for several years) their government-regulated time off, their salaries to be in line with legislated minimum wages, giving them contracts, payslips, etc.  As an HOA we renovated the guard house to improve the working conditions further and also started to supply the guards consumables in the form of coffee, tea, toilet paper, first aid supplies, etc., which had not been provided before.  Initially it appeared as if this approach worked and the service provider was working hard at being a responsible employer.  Unfortunately it did not last long and soon the service provider was back to their old ways.  The HOA had no choice but to sever all ties with the service provider.  That was the easy part.  Replacing them with a responsible private security company proved infinitely more difficult than was anticipated.

It appeared that the norm in the South African private security industry was what we had just experienced.  We combed through about 15 proposals, quotes and visits by potential service providers.  Due diligence from our part indicated that none of them adhered to the laws and human rights were seen as something that had nothing to do with them.  They all treated their employees as slaves who should be grateful for the jobs given to them.  It was by a pure stroke of luck that we stumbled upon our current service provider.  They appeared on paper to do the right thing, even has a CSR programme.  They have a close relationship with the police and are well regarded in the sector, yet small enough to be interested in us as a client. 

But even this new service provider needs to be kept on their toes.  Even they tried to slip in a 24 hour shift in the first few weeks – we sent them a letter that indicated in no uncertain terms that we will not allow this on our property – and in September (when salaries are increased) we checked to make sure that salaries have been increased as per legislation, and after the first year of the contract, we asked them for a leave schedule for the guards.  It is obviously not ideal that we, as the client, need to do this to ensure that they obey the law and obey human rights principles, but just like big companies are obligated (at least ethically) to be aware of the possible human rights infringements in their supply chain, so should small companies and home owners associations. 

Monitoring the supply chain should be an imperative because human rights is everyone’s right but also everyone’s responsibility.


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