How G4S helps Israel break the Geneva convention

Lisa Nandy calls for the government to take action over G4S' participation in illegal imprisonment.

Since 1967, more than 730,000 Palestinian men, women and children are estimated to have been imprisoned by Israeli military courts. The majority of such prisoners are held in detention facilities inside Israel, in violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention, which prohibits the transfer of these prisoners into Israel.

The practical consequence of this violation is that many prisoners, including children, receive either limited or no family visits, due to freedom of movement restrictions. In the case of children, this lack of adequate family contact also violates their rights under article 37 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

According to Israeli Prison Service figures released in June of this year, 85 per cent of Palestinian prisoners, including children, were detained inside Israel. Of 4,706 prisoners, 285 were held in administrative detention, without charge or trial.

The UK government has confirmed that Israel's policy of detaining Palestinians is contrary to Article 76 of the Fourth Geneva Convention, that they have raised this with the Israeli government and will continue to do so. In a recent letter to me, Foreign Office Minister Alistair Burt MP stated that the FCO is lobbying Israeli authorities for a number of improvements, including a reduction in the number of arrests that occur at night, an end to shackling and the introduction of audio-visual recording of interrogations.

Such diplomatic pressure is important - but what of the British companies that keep Israel's prisons running? According to corporate accountability campaigners, the security giant G4S, which is listed on the London Stock Exchange, signed a contract with the Israeli Prison Authority in 2007 to provide services to a number of prisons and detention facilities. Some of these are known to house prisoners transferred from the West Bank.

What's more, the company has installed a central command room in Ofer Prison in the occupied West Bank, which houses a centre where prisoners are tried under military law. Ofer Prison is located in what the Israeli military refers to as the "Seam Zone", which means access for visiting families is highly restricted.

G4S have said that it will exit from all the contracts it holds in the West Bank at the earliest opportunity the contract terms allow. They also say that they have not violated any international laws, which on this specific issue may be correct, given that the Geneva Conventions apply only to Governments that have ratified their terms. Despite these limitations, the UK government can still act - yet it refuses to.

Alastair Burt told me that, despite being aware of G4S's involvement in Israeli prisons, the Foreign Office has not discussed the issue with the company and believes that the "provision of services in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories is a matter for G4S."

Last June the UK Government co-sponsored a UN resolution that places duties on states to protect against corporate abuse of human rights. The commitment is meaningless if the government refuses to take action in a clear-cut case such as this.

Companies that have been involved in grievous human rights abuse continue to be listed on the London Stock Exchange, seriously damaging the reputation of British business abroad and making it more difficult to compete for those businesses which are trying to uphold high ethical business and trade standards. Such abuse by any corporation is not merely a matter for the company, but for everyone who supports and believes in the basic concept of human rights.

Lisa Nandy is Labour MP for Wigan and Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on International Corporate Responsibility

The Israel/Egypt border. Photograph: Getty Images

Lisa Nandy is the MP for Wigan. She was formerly Shadow Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change.

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There's nothing Luddite about banning zero-hours contracts

The TUC general secretary responds to the Taylor Review. 

Unions have been criticised over the past week for our lukewarm response to the Taylor Review. According to the report’s author we were wrong to expect “quick fixes”, when “gradual change” is the order of the day. “Why aren’t you celebrating the new ‘flexibility’ the gig economy has unleashed?” others have complained.

Our response to these arguments is clear. Unions are not Luddites, and we recognise that the world of work is changing. But to understand these changes, we need to recognise that we’ve seen shifts in the balance of power in the workplace that go well beyond the replacement of a paper schedule with an app.

Years of attacks on trade unions have reduced workers’ bargaining power. This is key to understanding today’s world of work. Economic theory says that the near full employment rates should enable workers to ask for higher pay – but we’re still in the middle of the longest pay squeeze for 150 years.

And while fears of mass unemployment didn’t materialise after the economic crisis, we saw working people increasingly forced to accept jobs with less security, be it zero-hours contracts, agency work, or low-paid self-employment.

The key test for us is not whether new laws respond to new technology. It’s whether they harness it to make the world of work better, and give working people the confidence they need to negotiate better rights.

Don’t get me wrong. Matthew Taylor’s review is not without merit. We support his call for the abolishment of the Swedish Derogation – a loophole that has allowed employers to get away with paying agency workers less, even when they are doing the same job as their permanent colleagues.

Guaranteeing all workers the right to sick pay would make a real difference, as would asking employers to pay a higher rate for non-contracted hours. Payment for when shifts are cancelled at the last minute, as is now increasingly the case in the United States, was a key ask in our submission to the review.

But where the report falls short is not taking power seriously. 

The proposed new "dependent contractor status" carries real risks of downgrading people’s ability to receive a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. Here new technology isn’t creating new risks – it’s exacerbating old ones that we have fought to eradicate.

It’s no surprise that we are nervous about the return of "piece rates" or payment for tasks completed, rather than hours worked. Our experience of these has been in sectors like contract cleaning and hotels, where they’re used to set unreasonable targets, and drive down pay. Forgive us for being sceptical about Uber’s record of following the letter of the law.

Taylor’s proposals on zero-hours contracts also miss the point. Those on zero hours contracts – working in low paid sectors like hospitality, caring, and retail - are dependent on their boss for the hours they need to pay their bills. A "right to request" guaranteed hours from an exploitative boss is no right at all for many workers. Those in insecure jobs are in constant fear of having their hours cut if they speak up at work. Will the "right to request" really change this?

Tilting the balance of power back towards workers is what the trade union movement exists for. But it’s also vital to delivering the better productivity and growth Britain so sorely needs.

There is plenty of evidence from across the UK and the wider world that workplaces with good terms and conditions, pay and worker voice are more productive. That’s why the OECD (hardly a left-wing mouth piece) has called for a new debate about how collective bargaining can deliver more equality, more inclusion and better jobs all round.

We know as a union movement that we have to up our game. And part of that thinking must include how trade unions can take advantage of new technologies to organise workers.

We are ready for this challenge. Our role isn’t to stop changes in technology. It’s to make sure technology is used to make working people’s lives better, and to make sure any gains are fairly shared.

Frances O'Grady is the General Secretary of the TUC.