Books

The Fight to Control Women

“Recent years have seen a panic over “online red-light districts,” which supposedly seduce vulnerable young women into a life of degradation, and New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof’s live tweeting of a Cambodian brothel raid. But rarely do these fearful, salacious dispatches come from sex workers themselves, and rarely do they deviate from the position that sex workers must be rescued from their condition, and the industry simply abolished — a position common among feminists and conservatives alike.

“In Playing the Whore, journalist Melissa Gira Grant turns these pieties on their head, arguing for an overhaul in the way we think about sex work. Based on ten years of writing and reporting on the sex trade, and grounded in her experience as an organizer, advocate, and former sex worker, Playing the Whore dismantles pervasive myths about sex work, criticizes both conditions within the sex industry and its criminalization, and argues that separating sex work from the ‘legitimate’ economy only harms those who perform sexual labor. In Playing the Whore, sex workers’ demands, too long relegated to the margins, take center stage: sex work is work, and sex workers’ rights are human rights.”

– Summary of Playing the Whore from goodreads.com

Debates about prostitution tend to cover many topics, ranging from informal economics to public health, but ultimately comes down to one central element: control. Control of women. Control over women.

Playing the Whore: The Work of Sex Work by Melissa Gira Grant Jacobin/Verso, 136 pp.

Playing the Whore: The Work of Sex Work
by Melissa Gira Grant
Jacobin/Verso, 136 pp.

Those involved in sex work, whether they use the label of prostitute, sex worker or something else, belong to a part of society largely overlooked by society. Like the homeless or the unemployed, society, generally, looks down upon them while rarely offering respect for their human dignity or considering their current state as a temporary one. Leaders in both public and private sectors rarely given them a chance for inclusion into the rest of society.

Grant’s Playing the Whore is a simple yet exhaustive study of all the areas which affect sex workers, including the police, the media and the groups who see themselves as the ‘savior’. Largely excluded from the discussion on criminality, depiction or alternatives are sex workers themselves.

Just as women of colour and lesbians of generations past had to face off against straight white feminists of movements past, sex workers who seek autonomy and respect have to face off against anti-prostitution feminists today who offer neither. Grant documents how feminists in the anti-prostitution movement organize events and talks about sex work while, without seeing the problem, never including sex workers.

Female sex workers, like the many others who preceded them in the women’s liberation movement, continue to counter the conservative values, often shaped by Christian morality, that come to control their daily life. Although those people who buy sex sometimes face arrest, the burden falls predominantly on the woman. Sex workers face widespread violence and harassment by police officers. Sadly, the rest of society does not value sex workers much better.

In the same way that substance abuse is now seen as a health concern and something that shouldn’t be treated with criminalization and imprisonment, prostitution should be seen as an issue of employment needs. Unfortunately, politicians, supposed “advocates” and others refuse to see their place as seeking harm reduction, as is being done for addicts. Similarly, the role for police in both instances is to protect citizens – all citizens – especially those most vulnerable to receiving harm.

The central element of the book, which is signaled by its subtitle, “The Work of Sex Work”, is that of employment. Bringing her own stories as well as other sex workers, Grant describes the informal nature of today’s sex work. The women’s liberation movement has long been about women’s economic liberation. From unpaid care work to the gender pay gap, women have long suffered from an economy tailored not to them but towards men. Sex work is no different. Grant connects the work of sex work to other forms of self-employment within the informal sector, such as hair stylists, and service industries, like retail. Until all women are given the economic opportunities to live a dignified and comfortable life, these forms of informal or part-time employment will have to be used.

The debate on economics applies to countries around the world. As Grant points out, the movement to “rescue” sex workers in Asia and elsewhere does not address the economic, political and social disadvantages sex workers face inside and outside the profession. Even if victimized women are rescued, they receive little more than job training to low-paid labour. A sign in a Cambodia textile shop employing former sex workers point to this realization. It reads:

DON’T TALK TO ME ABOUT SEWING MACHINES. TALK TO ME ABOUT WORKERS’ RIGHTS.

Until we begin to see women – all women – as equal members of society, short-term fixes will not have the power to liberate sex workers when they continue to live in poverty. For those women who are left without alternative employment, decriminalization and support should be a first priority, not fear of the police and exclusion from ‘mainstream’ workers.

The debate between a woman’s right to self-determination and conservative traditional values in society is linked to another contentious issue: abortion.

The first feminist wave gave women the right to vote. The second wave gave women the Pill, and control of their reproductive rights.

In the United States, like most countries around the world, abortion was important for family planning but seen as a criminal action. This period, half a century ago, was also marked by near total male representation in politics. In 1973, the US Supreme Court determined that abortion was a constitutionally protected act with Roe v. Wade. Since then, conservative groups have fought to make abortion illegal or impossible to get.

cartoonThe documentary TRAPPED showcases doctors who perform abortions in some states in the United States who have fought against so-called TRAP (Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers) laws. Since 2011, states in the South and Midwest have passed more than 300 abortion restrictions — TRAP laws, admitting privilege requirements, rules for how medication abortions may be performed, bans on abortion after 20 weeks (and sometimes earlier), longer waiting periods, and greater impediments to teenagers seeking abortions without parental approval.

Earlier this year, in the case of Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, the US Supreme Court found that TRAP laws in Texas placed an “undue burden” on women seeking abortion and thus violate the Constitution. This is a major victory for women’s rights and may signal the beginning of TRAP laws being overruled across the nation.

TRAPPED follows in the footsteps of other documentary films shining a light on the battle over a woman’s right to choose. Six years ago, 12th & Delaware revealed the fight on the titular street corner in Fort Pierce, Florida, between a for-profit abortion clinic and a Roman Catholic Church-supported pregnancy clinic whose mission is to prevent women from obtaining abortions. While the abortion clinic takes precautions against threats of violence and fends off protesters, the pregnancy clinic actively spreads misinformation to women about the dangers of abortion.

A decade ago, Lake of Fire depicted the heated abortion debate that was already waging for decades in America. Leaving no stone unturned, it featured graphic footage of actual medical procedures and presented people on both pro-choice and pro-life sides of the issue.

These films add to the lengthy abortion debate in the United States and reveal the tactics of those groups opposed to a women’s right to choose how her pregnancy is managed. Ultra-conservative and Christian groups lie to pregnant women, spreading misinformation and fear. They set up anti-abortion pregnancy centres, which act as red herrings to women who are seeking abortions, while never disclosing their real ideology. These tactics show no respect towards pregnant women who, for whatever reason, have decided that a medically-assisted abortion is the right decision. Instead, they fool pregnant women, delaying their decision beyond what the law allows and, in effect, force vulnerable to follow through with their pregnancy against their will. A shameful game of politics over people.

The abortion debate in the United States has not been peaceful either. Groups like Operation Rescue and others promote violence to achieve their ends. It’s not just psychological violence. Although conservative and Christian groups regularly protest outside clinics and yell at women who enter, they also conduct terrorism. Male opponents to abortion (it’s almost always men who become violent) have repeatedly assassinated doctors and fire-bombed clinics, spreading fear and pressuring providers to close their doors. The entire anti-abortion movement ultimately furthers these horrendous acts of violence through their misinformation and shaming protests. Sadly, this violence in the name of opposing reproductive rights is not limited to only the US.

screen-shot-2014-05-04-at-1-59-26-pmThe concept of rescue is found in the ideologies of both anti-prostitution and anti-abortion. Rescue from what? Rescuing women from themselves, it seems. From decisions about their health, their well-being, their finances, and their work. The debate doesn’t typically expand past what to do once women are “rescued”. They are thrown back into society to fend for themselves without the political, economic or social support they may have wanted in the first place.

It’s difficult to ignore the irony at the center of debates on women’s rights: the loudest voices aren’t women. Men make up the majority of anti-abortion advocates. One of the biggest anti-abortion voices is the Catholic Church, which is built around female subservience to male clergy. Male legislatures pass laws without talking to female voters.

Although women are often found protesting prostitution and abortion, the organisations they represent are, more often than not, led by men. Men who will never be pregnant. Men who have more employment opportunities than women and who can purchase sex from prostitutes without fear of much prosecution or persecution.

Men need to stand aside and listen, rather than stand at the front and dominate the discussion. We need to stop making decisions about those we know little about.

Ultimately, the fight is not over whose morals should dominate because this is not a debate over ideas; it’s a debate over people. People who have the right to determine their own lives. All human beings deserve dignity.

All struggles are connected since, as the organisation Black Women for Wages for Housework said, “When prostitutes win, all women win.” Hookers and housewives unite!

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Propaganda of the Deed

The children of Marinaleda have the pleasure to tell you about the situation in Andalusia and specifically, Marinaleda. A few days ago, our parents, in an open assembly, agreed to go on hunger strike. We are in solidarity with them. We have been on hunger strike for several days.

Why are we on hunger strike? We are on hunger strike because our parents have already spent six months living on the alms of community employment. In our village people earn not even two hundred pesetas a day, because sometimes they only work two days a month. We live in such poverty that some families have to borrow money from their neighbours, because the shops no longer give them credit. Put yourself in our place and think: is it fair that while some children are on holiday with their parents and families, others don’t know if they will eat that night? Is it fair that while some children have private tutors, others can’t even attend state schools? Is it fair that while some waste large amounts of money on toys and luxuries, others have no shoes to wear and must go barefoot?

We don’t think it is, and that is why we are on hunger strike. That is why we have gone several days without food, and we won’t stop until a solution arrives, because this situation is unbearable. It is even more unbearable in a land as rich as Andalusia.

Friend: the problem in our land is serious, and so we are going to continue fighting alongside out parents. W will continue fighting because the problem is also ours; so please consider and answer these questions. What will become of us? What is our future? Your future, we imagine, is already resolve, but what of ours? Who will resolve ours?

This is not a fairy tale, but a real situation which you will never know . . . We ask you with all our hearts to stop and think, and perhaps you’ll feel anger or pity and you or your parents will us some solution.

Sorry if these words are strong, but our hunger is stronger. Greetings from your friends. Marinaleda.

The children of the small Andalusian village of Marinaleda wrote the above letter to Prince Felipe, son of King Juan Carlos, heir to the Spanish throne, and, at the time, twelve years old.

25spain-mapIt was August 1980, five years after the death of dictator Francisco Franco, when 700 residents – men, women and children – of Marinaleda decided to host the ‘hunger strike against hunger’ (una huelga de hambre contra el hambre) for nine days. As one newspaper cartoon put it at the time: “700 on hunger strike in Marinaleda; the rest, just hungry.”

The village initial demand upon launching the hunger strike was for an increase in ‘community employment funds’ (essentially, paid public-works projects for the unemployed). The village was is a truly desperate state by the summer of 1980. In the first seven months of the year they had received an equivalent of 200 pesetas per family per day – less than two euros. Ultimately, the people needed a more radial solution: land redistribution. Their fight had just begun.

This moment in history transformed the village of Marinaleda and frames Dan Hancox’s book The Village Against the World. Since the 1980s, the villagers of Marinaleda, led by the radiacl mayor, Juan Manuel Sánchez Gordillo, have rebelled against the triple repression of the state, the monarchy and the church.

village_against_the_world_pb_cmyk-f8442eed8e2828cd6089edd67ff574b5In 1985, labourers from Marinaleda and the nearby pueblos of Gilena and Utrera started to occupy the lands of the Duke of Infantado, owner of 17,000 hectares in Andalusia. At the time, unemployment was 65 percent in Marinaleda, while 50 percent of land in Andalusia was owned by just 2 percent of families. The people wanted land reform to change this injustice.

They were requested the state redistribute 1,200 hectares. On this 1,200-hectare estate the only things growing, for mile in every direction, were wheat and sunflowers – it required only three or four caretakers to tend to it. The people were idle and the land was idle: the resolution was obvious.

Eventually in 1991, they were granted the 1,200 hectares and the Duke of Infantado was quietly paid off by the regional government. The people of Marinaleda finally became landlords.

They didn’t rest on their laurels, but continued la lucha throughout the 1990s, campaigning for funds for cultural projects, for housing, or for their brethren across Andalusia: occupying the Bank of Spain, blocking the high-speed AVE trains, breaking into the international airports at Malaga and Seville, occupying the Palace of San Telmo, Canal Sur Radio, and launching yet more hunger strikes, demonstrations and blockades, in the Sierra Sur and in Seville.

These historic victories showcase Marinaleda as an example for fellow communities in Spain and beyond. Villagers of Marinaleda build their own homes with materials supplied by the government, paying a ‘mortgage’ of 15 euros per months. Their is nearly full employment in Marinaleda, as unemployment is less than 5 percent, versus 36 percent in the rest of Andalusia. This is thanks to the olive oil cooperative and vegetable canning factory in the village, both of which pay higher than the national minimum wage.

The village of Marinaleda is a shining light of the possibility of decentralized governance and social enterprise.

Religion as Political Scapegoat

This is not about terrorism. Terrorism is the excuse. This is about economic and social control. And the only thing you’re really protecting is the supremacy of your government.

This reflection from the 2016 docu-drama Snowden illustrates the current world we live in. A world, we’re told, filled with terrorist threats. But, are we in danger?

The Muslims Are Coming!: Islamophobia, Extremism, and the Domestic War on Terror by Arun Kundnani Verso, 336 pp.

The Muslims are coming! : Islamophobia, extremism, and the domestic war on terror
by Arun Kundnani
Verso, 336 pp.

In his book The Muslims are coming!: Islamophobia, extremism, and the domestic war on terror, Arun Kundnani thoroughly counters the narrative of Muslim extremism found in the United States and United Kingdom.

For the most part, the threat of terrorism by ‘jihadists’ is similar or less than the threat of white supremacists, which have a far longer track record of murder and mayhem in the two centers of Anglophone power (pp.22):

In Europe, the violence carried out by far Right groups, which have racism as a central part of their ideology, is of a similar magnitude to that of jihadist violence: at least 249 people died in incidents of far Right violence between 1990 and 2012; 263 were killed by jihadists over the same period.

In the US, between 1990 and 2013, there were 145 acts of political violence committed by the American far Right, resulting in 348 deaths. In comparison, 20 people were killed over the same period in acts of political violence carried out by Muslim-American citizens or long-term residents of the US.

The 20 deaths in the US, caused by Nidal Malik Hasan, Abdulhakim Mujahid Muhammad, Naveed Afzal Haq, Graham Mohamed Hadayet, Ali Hassan Abu Kamal, and the Jamaat ul-Fuqra group in Tucson 1990, are seen as proof of Muslim extremism, while non-Muslim terrorism is seen as unique and not part of a pattern. The United States has a long history of white supremacist terrorism, from the Ku Klux Klan to modern assaults on immigrants, as well as Christian radicals who attack anyone with an opposing ideology, like abortion providers.

The thread that links terrorism by Christian white supremacists and by Muslim radical isn’t their religion, as the US and UK would have us believe. It’s about their politics. The terrorists themselves say this. Many Muslim terrorists, such as those who bombed the London Underground, were motivated by nothing more than the Iraq War.

Unfortunately, this narrative doesn’t fit the agenda of Western imperialism.

The threat posed by white supremacists does little to push America and Britain to war.

Muslim terrorism, misunderstood, allows American and British military to cast perpetual war, from Pakistan to Yemen, Somalia to Afghanistan. Wars and extra-judicial drone bombings are the spark that ignites hatred against the West. It does nothing to provide safety and security.

The Cold War gave the West 50 years of fictional enemies: Russians and communists. Since the Berlin Wall fell, Muslims extremists were cast as the new villains to continue this fiction of global fear. In both cases, the enemy was ideal, as Samuel P. Huntington describes, for casting fear among Americans:

The ideal enemy for America would be ideologically hostile, racially and culturally different, and militarily strong enough to pose a credible threat to American security.

The ‘otherness’ of Muslims feeds into the racism that the United States and other Western nations wee built upon. By never understanding the ‘other’, Americans and Britons can create a stereotype of jihadists lusting for war, even though it isn’t true.

The Muslims are coming! looks at these issue from several areas. Following the 9/11 terrorist acts, perpetrated by 19 men of mostly Saudi nationality, liberal and conservative politicians united in the drive for war, first in Afghanistan, then in Iraq. By misunderstanding the reasons for the first attack, these politicians began the course for 15 years of terror towards Muslim communities abroad and at home. These wars, combined with stories of unrestrained torture at Bagram Airfield, Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay, caused a handful of young men to fight against the imperialism of American and British forces in foreign Muslim lands. Imperialist politics caused both sides of this problem.

In addition to misunderstanding their supposed enemies, American and British intelligence agencies have done an incredible job of fostering terror plots. Kundnani documents in detail how the FBI uses informants and financial incentives, as well as threats of violence, against low level criminals, who happen to be Muslim, to manufacture terror plots. These plots are thought up by FBI undercover agents and informants, who also get cash incentives, and sold to naive people who would have no ability whatsoever to do harm without the FBI’s help. The media sells these stories to the public at large, furthering the myth of widespread Muslim extremism and Islamophobia more generally. The national surveillance programs found in many Western nations was brought into existence by many of these lies and continues to target Muslims disproportionately.

These idea of political anger not religious terrorism can be broadened outside of the United States.

defamationDefamation, a film by Israeli director Yoav Shamir, travels the world asking what constitutes anti-Semitism in modern times. Anti-Semitism today is real and continues the 3,000 years of unspeakable hatred towards the Jewish people. Unfortunately, the label today is used to address both real hate crimes and used to protect all actions by the state of Israel.

Political scholars like John Mearsheimer, Stephen Walt, and Norman Finkelstein, who are profiled in the film, are some of the few people who can evade the label of anti-Semitic thanks to their Jewish heritage. For many others, especially Muslim activists, there is no such protection.

Criticism of Israel’s wars and persecution against Palestinians are seen as anti-Semitism by many Israelis and their defenders. Some accusations are warranted. But most are political and have nothing to do with religious hatred. This difference is fundamental to understanding both sides.

The Israel-Palestine conflict is not alone. Religious and ethnic differences, around the world, have been attributed to conflicts that are fundamentally political. From the 25-year civil war in Sri Lanka to decades of fighting in the Sudans, different people have fought for political recognition. News agencies and governments have twisted these stories to fit their own agendas, while ignoring the root causes. Ultimately, the lack of understanding for different sides prevents protracted conflicts from reaching a swift end and the start of peaceful change.

American and British domestic policies continue to see religion were only politics exist.

War will never bring peace. Western imperialism will never solve religious extremism. The first step must be to understand those you don’t know.

The Muslims are coming! is a great start for anyone looking to find the truth behind the shadow of fear.

Down With The Royals, Up With Democracy

Pandas and royal persons alike are expensive to conserve and ill-adapted to any modern environment.

This comparison of British royals to zoological specimens by novelist Hilary Mantel is but one of many ideas presented in Joan Smith’s book, Down With The Royals.

Down With The Royals by Joan Smith Biteback Publishing, 120 pp.

Down With The Royals
by Joan Smith
Biteback Publishing, 120 pp.

In three parts, Smith dissects the arguments for maintaining the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and the arguments in favor of moving towards a republic.

A public debate on the issue is nearly impossible as the media exaggerates the royal family’s popularity. There are royal correspondents who spend their entire day finding the smallest detail to report on TV and in the press; this is also at the expense of important global affairs. On the other hand, contrasting views are belittled. When the organisation Republic holds a rally, attendance is restricting and under-reported in the news.

Fundamentally, a hereditary monarchy, Smith points out, is undemocratic, expensive and unaccountable.

Long ago, King George III made a deal with the government after racking up huge debt. The royal family would receive a fixed annual salary and have their debts removed, in exchange for handing over the rents from their crown land to government. Today, this results in the royal family receiving an salary of £40 million each year. The revenue from crown land is around £200 million. So, it seems like the Parliament is making a profit.

However, the true costs are hidden. “One significant element that doesn’t appear in the official estimates is the cost of providing security for numerous members of the British royal family, along with the bill for royal visits.” The cost of royal security is estimated at £100 million. Adding other costs, the actual cost of maintaining the royals is closer to £300 million. Equally important is the fact that the royal family doesn’t publish full accounts and leaves out the most expensive elements, like security. This royals are costing taxpayers tens of millions of pounds each year, far more than any of the other remaining royal families left in the world, such as Sweden or Denmark.

The royal family isn’t a good caretaker either, allowing important heritage properties fall into disrepair. Almost 40 percent of the royal estate’s building were not in an ‘acceptable’ condition in 2012, according to the House of Commons public accounts committee.

But what about tourism, defenders of the monarchy may shout. This is another myth that royalists spread.

Smith shows that rates of tourism have no connection to Royal events like weddings or births. In fact, the evidence points to a decline in tourism during years of major events. This makes sense when you think about it. How many Europeans and international tourists plan their vacations to coincide with the one or two days a year when the royal family is out in public celebrating a wedding or birth. Tourism, like in France and the US, does not rely on having a king or queen living in a royal palace when you arrive.

The final claim by royalists that Smith dissolves is that the Queen and her family remain neutral when it comes to ruling the country and influences government. This is another myth to be undone.

From supporting Fascist Germany to Apartheid South Africa in the past to repressive regimes in Saudi Arabia and Qatar today, the royal family has a long history of supporting regimes for their own self interest. Their partisan views have been spun by the media out of public debate, but friends of the royals have confirmed that they are ‘natural-born Tories’.

The Queen as head of state holds and uses the power of veto over government legislation. Whitehall papers show that overall at least 39 bills have been subject to this process, known as “Queen’s consent” or “Prince’s consent”. We don’t know how many bills have been amended or vetoed altogether before reaching Parliament. Prince Charles, heir to the throne, is known for his meetings with high-ranking government officials and memos; all of which are kept secret and away from public scrutiny.

Queen Elizabeth II is also the Head of the Commonwealth, an organisation with a combined population of 2.1 billion people, yet her role is neither elected nor subject to a fixed term. 16 nations, including my own (Canada), count Queen Elizabeth as their head of state. This relic of the British empire and its colonies and territories is entirely at odds with current notions of democracy and human rights. The export of parliamentary democracy and common law to these nations and others continues to face outdated problems, such as ‘first past the post’ voting and anti-homosexuality legislation. How can one family and one person have so much power, in perpetuity?

In every area of modern society, the royal family is long overdue for a replacement. They are a drain on taxpayers money. They have ruled for over 1,000 years without any say from the people. They ally themselves with repressive regimes and influence British legislation. And they use the media as a shield against public debate and any means of accountability. On every issue, the royalists are living a fairy tale.

God save the Queen? Hardly, as Smith concludes:

In the twenty-first century, we shouldn’t still be imploring an imaginary deity to save an inherited head of state. If we can only find the courage, we are perfectly capable of saving ourselves.

Selling Off the UK Government to the Lowest Bidder

Government outsourcing–contracting private companies to provide public services–can produce amazing results. The process links government revenue with business tools. When a government’s own in-house capacity is limited, contracting private companies can be an essential solution, whether it’s providing stationary or building bridges.

Outsourcing can also be a stressful exercise, as John Glenn, American astronaut and the fifth person to go into space, responded when asked how he felt sitting in a space capsule getting ready to launch and listening to the countdown: “I felt exactly how you would feel if you were getting ready to launch and knew you were sitting on top of two million parts — all built by the lowest bidder on a government contract.”

Shadow State by Alan White XX, pp.

Shadow State: Inside the Secret Companies that Run Britain
by Alan White
Oneworld, 320 pp.

Following the free-market philosophy of Margaret Thatcher, successive UK governments (whether Conservative or Labour, under Major, Blair, Brown and Cameron cabinets) have increasingly relied on massive private companies to provide essential services, like health care and prisons, previously handled by government departments. Research suggests the market for public service outsourcing has an annual turnover of £72 billion: about 24 percent of the spend on public services in the UK. Four companies dominate this landscape: G4S, Serco, Atos and Capita.

They also pay little in taxes. In November 2013 the National Audit Office (NAO) found that, despite holding government contracts worth around £4.5 billion, Atos and G4S paid no corporation tax at all in the UK in 2012. Capita only paid between £50 million and £56 million, while Serco paid £25 million.

In chapter after chapter, example after example, Alan White’s book Shadow State shines a light on the murky, highly lucrative world of government outsourcing and privatization in the United Kingdom. In addition to revealing the inner workings of the largest companies that perform public services, White examines the government’s responsibility to the public who use these services.

As Mark Fox of the British Service Association notes: “when you outsource or privatize…you don’t outsource political responsibility for things” (pp. 215). On the difficulty of holding the UK’s highly centralized government accountability, White notes: “sometimes things go wrong because of contractors, sometimes it’s almost entirely the government department’s fault, and most of the time it’s a combination of the two. But what’s most important is that if blame for poor performance often seems difficult to disentangle between state and private contractor, that’s hardly helped by the mechanisms we have in place to assess such projects” (pp. 151).

The state and the private contractors it hires wield incredible power in pursuit of profits and reduced budgets. Decisions are often tailored to the benefit of businesses and not citizens. White’s book shows why the private sector isn’t democratic, accountable or transparent. It doesn’t give the people who use the services a say. As shown in the cases below, these flaws lead to wasteful spending, injury and even death.

Outsourced Immigration: Dangerous and Unaccountable

In October 2010 Jimmy Mubenga died “a very public death on the last row of seats on a full British Airways flight that was sitting on the runway at Heathrow airport” (pp. 16). The flight was waiting to go to Luanda, Angola.

Handcuffed behind his back, Mubenga was saying “I don’t want to go” and “I can’t breathe” while three guards restrained him: two were sitting either side and held him down, pressing his head between his legs, while a third leaned over the passenger seat from the row in front and occasionally did the same when he managed to pushed back up. The three guards worked for G4S, which at the time had been contracted to oversee Home Office deportations.

Mubenga, who had fled Angola with his family in 1994 after the government killed his father-in-law and threatened him, was now crying for help. The technique used to restrain Mubenga, which is strictly prohibited because it could result in a form of suffocation known as positional asphyxia, was nicknamed “carpet karaoke” by G4S guards. According to one witness, Mubenga called for help around 50 times as he slowly suffocated. He soon lost consciousness and died of cardiac arrest.

In 2014, the G4S guards were acquitted of manslaughter, despite evidence of racism and denying pushing him down; they claimed that he put himself into that position, bent over in his seat.

Jimmy Mubenga is not the only person to have been restrained to death by guards from outsourcing companies. The use of force during deportations is now commonplace, as are serious injuries sustained by asylum seekers and other deportees. The 2008 Medical Justice report, Outsourcing Abuse, documented the numerous injuries sustained by asylum seekers in detention and during forcible deportations. G4S came out as the worst ‘offender’.

Physical harm, including death, has been reported in several sectors operated by outsourcing companies. Yarl’s Wood, an immigration removal detention centre operated by the outsourcing firm Serco, is a case in point. Located in Bedfordshire, this centre houses adult women and adult family groups awaiting immigration clearance. It also houses “a culture of abuse, racism and violence” according to a Daily Mirror undercover investigation. Women are subjected to sexual advances, abuse and assault by the male security guards, including a guard getting a woman pregnant. Guards use the threat of deportation to silence women forced to have inappropriate relations. One woman had been held for four years, which, when one considers the fact that none of these people have been charged with an offence, seems needlessly cruel. Despite these stories and investigations, Serco’s contract to run Yarl’s Wood was renewed in 2014 for eight more years, and it was paid £70 million for the job.

White notes that “there’s a clear need for our legal and political systems to improve the standards of accountability and it extends far beyond this case or other assaults.” As Clare Sambrook pointed out to White in 2013: “G4S [and other outsourcing companies] operate[s] in many countries where such matters don’t come to light” (pp.26).

The Guardian, which broke the story of Mubenga’s death, only realized there was something up because its reporters tracked posts from passengers on the plane who were using Twitter. Because private companies are accountable to their shareholders and not the taxpayers who fund their contracts, transparency is often lacking. In the aftermath of Mubenga’s death, shadow justice minister Sadiq Khan wrote to the four companies responsible for most of the outsourced work involving detaining and transporting suspects and criminals. He got mixed results (pp. 167):

“Serco responded in the most detail, closely followed by Sodexo. GEOAmey refused to divulge any information, instead directing my request to the Ministry of Justice. G4S did not provide any information directly, instead mentioning that the Ministry of Justice and Home Office would respond formally. Unfortunately, neither did.”

It needs to be said that government also has its role in these failures. As White notes, many problems are due to chaotic governance, not the agents of the state. An exchange from the “Atos Work Capability Assessments”, 17 January 2013, between Labour MP Kevan Jones and Conservative MP Robert Halfon is helpful in highlighting both the lack of accountability by government officials who sign outsourcing contracts and their inability to stop subsequent contracts to under-performing firms (pp. 54):

Mr. Jones: The hon. Gentleman is correct in saying that the first contract with Atos was introduced by the previous government, but why did the preset government renew and extend that contract even though they knew about all the problems that he and others have raised in the House?

Mr. Halfon: This is where I agree with the hon. Gentleman. I was very disturbed when Atos got the contract for the personal independence payments.

Mr. Jones: That happened under this government.

Mr. Halfon: Yes, that is what I am saying. The reasons that were given included the fact that the infrastructure was already in place, and the cost of changing the contractor.

The current system is clearly in a dysfunctional state.

Criminal Justice For Sale: Making Things Worse

The private sector’s role in delivering detention services, for adults and children, is growing but not leading to improved conditions, as Chapter 4 shows. Once people leave detention, they face a probation system that is flawed and seems to be working against them.

In April 2012, HMP Oakwood, in Wolverhampton, opened at a cost of £180 million. The G4S-run prison would house more than 1,600 inmates. The jail was soon branded “Jokewood” due to repeated negative news headlines. There was stories of prison gangs running the institution and protests, where inmates accessed the roof for more than five hours. One prisoner told the Guardian (pp. 83):

“I’ve been in jails all over the country. But this was the worst. It’s a shit-hole staffed by kids who should be stacking shelves.” He added that it was easy to get drugs and alcohol: “It’s easy to get hooch, even easier to get Black Mamba [synthetic cannabis]. The parcels are chucked over the fence.”

Of the 13 private prisons in England Wales, “Oakwood and Thameside in London received a rating of one out of four (‘overall performance is of serious concern’), who two others had a two rating (‘overall performance is of concern’)” (pp. 84). This amounts to 30 percent of private prisons being of concern. What is the figure for publicly run prisons? Nine percent. Of the 121 publicly run prisons, only one received a ranking of one (0.8 percent), and only ten achieved a rating of two (8 percent). “Violence is four times higher at Serco-run HMP Doncaster that at a comparable-sized state-run prison” (pp. 85).

The ratings come after private security companies G4S and Serco came under fire for overcharging the government by “tens of millions of pounds” for providing electronic tags for criminals. It triggered a government-wide review of all contracts held by the two firms.

Services within the courts have also been negatively affected by the injection of private companies. A 2013 statistical bulletin from the MoJ showed that courts weren’t being provided with interpreters nearly once every ten times. On each occasion this led to days being lost at crown court, it cost around £10,000–by December 2013 it had cost the Crown Prosecution Service around £17 million in total (pp. 93). These costs and delays were widespread following the government’s move away from the National Register for Public Service Interpreters, an independent voluntary regulator for the 2,200 qualified, largely self-employed, interpreters to private companies.

One such company was Applied Language Services (ALS), which was acquired by Capita before their £90 million, five-year contract was signed. ALS/Capita immediately started to cut pay to interpreters, resulting in a boycott. Staff shortages impaired the courts weekly: murder cases were delayed, friends had to interpret for each other and cases were adjourned due to lack of interpreter. The government eventually admitted its failure, as one Liberal Democrat MP said (pp. 92):

“The department did not have an adequate understanding of the needs of courts, it failed to heed warnings from the professionals concerned, and it did not put sufficient safeguards in place to prevent interruptions in the provision of quality interpreting services to courts. The MoJ’s handling of the outsourcing of court interpreting services has been nothing short of shambolic.”

In a similar vain, the Probation Service were being outsourced to a handful of private providers, without any meaningful piloting or testing, while also severing the working relationship with local authorities, the health service and the police. Shadow justice minister Sadiq Khan wrote about the dangers to public safety that privatization has brought to the Probation Service (pp. 105):

“I’ve heard some truly alarming reports on the chaos privatization is causing: staff shortages caused by rocketing sickness levels and dozens of unfilled vacancies are crippling the service.

“As a result, a backlog of cases is building up, including offenders who have committed serious, violent crimes like domestic violence. Oversight of sex offenders has been handed to staff without the right expertise. High-risk cases aren’t receiving sufficient supervision. Court reports are going unwritten. Senior management time has been sucked into restructuring, neglecting day-to-day duties rehabilitating offenders. New software designed to assess the risk that offenders pose to the public was rushed into service without adequate staff training. It is a shocking state of affairs, which could have catastrophic consequences for public safety.”

Regarding the justice system in the UK, White concludes (pp. 108):

“Whether it’s in the courts, prisons or probation, the Ministry of Justice has outsourced at a breakneck speed in recent years. In part, it’s been done to save money–but all three cases there’s an earnest belief that private companies can bring imagination and creativity to the sectors within which they operate. However, the problem is that the decisions to outsource appear not to have yielded any particularly impressive results yet, while the rush to impose this brave new vision has upset established workers within the justice sector.”

Private Health Care: Poor Value for Money

A final sector to examine is health care. Founded in 1948, the UK’s National Health Service (NHS) has seen a steady shift towards private firms in recent years, with a rise in the proportion of the NHS budget going to firms such as Virgin Care, Care UK and Bupa. Department of Health figures show that the amount of its funding that has gone to “independent sector providers” more than doubled from £4.1 billion in 2009-10 to £8.7 billion in 2015-16.

One rationale claimed by politicians for the privatization of essential services, like health care, is reducing cost. However, as White shows, private contractors use complicated accounting techniques, networks of corporate partnerships and debt-inducing loans to shift their financial risk from themselves onto taxpayers. Private contractors seek to maximize the number of transactions regardless of demand. Many NHS provider operate a loss-leader model where they take annual losses, surviving on funding secured from investors on the promise of more NHS work. “What would happens if this model failed before it succeeded?” White asks. And answers (pp. 124):

“In 2008 Circle took out a £42 million loan from Barclays to open a new independent sector treatment centre at Nottingham’s Queen’s Medical Centre. It was to be repaid through income from the local NHS buying its services. It seemed Circle couldn’t meet the five percent interest rate, so the NHS paid the bill in full, as apparently the firm had an ‘unconditional right’ to compel it to do so.”

Circle Health is owned by a parent company, Circle Holdings plc, which in turn is owned by a series of hedge funds. In just one year, their profits have gone up 160 percent (!), from £64.6 million in 2010/11 to £170.4 million in 2011/12. This type of corporate welfare has become commonplace. Private businesses profit when things go smooth and taxpayers pay the price when things fail.

Social care is another area the government has been outsourcing, with troubling results. There are around five thousand young people in residential care homes–and around three quarters of these homes are run by private companies. In 2011, the top five providers had turned a profit of £30 million. Companies, like Sovereign and 3i, make these high profits by buying up cheap housing stock around the country, to which vulnerable children can be shunted. By shifting childcare from charities to private equity firms, staffing has reduced and children have been abused. In a 2012 report, published by Social Enterprise UK, figures show “that children’s homes in England–caring for 3,040 boys and 1,800 girls–had reported 631 suspected cases of young residents being sold for sex in the past five years. These are just the reported cases: the true figure is likely to be far higher” (pp. 130). The private sector’s business model of moving vulnerable children around exacerbates some of the problems they’re already facing.

Final Thoughts

Beyond the normal discussions regarding conflicts of interest and inaccurate contract pricing, the public (in the UK and elsewhere) need to question the fundamental theory of government outsourcing and privatization. Unlike public infrastructure, essential services are a matter of life and death. Immigration, criminal justice and health care are fundamentally human endeavors. As Peter Holbrook, the CEO of Social Enterprise UK, notes: “most public services rely on human relationships, so upscaling leads to a huge degradation in the quality of service” (pp. 131).

The growing dominance of a few private contractors has lead the UK government to label them as “too big to fail”, meaning that their financial risk is ultimately held by taxpayers. As the world saw with the global financial crisis in 2008, companies were making record profits while the general public went unprotected from corporate greed. Ultimately, the outsourcing of a wide variety of public services to a few bodies is a risk we can not afford.

Increased accountability and transparency are fundamental to preventing the problems discussed above. One of the best ways to achieve these ends in by implementing local solutions on a smaller scale. The Paddington Development Trust (PDT) is a great example of this. The PDT runs youth services, health centres and academies, has refurbished community centres, and has been involved in many more projects, most of which are designed to create employment and business opportunities to residents. The fundamental decision for a government is whether to let money go to companies or inject it into local organizations.

Alan White closes by balancing the gloomy present with an optimistic future (pp. 249-250):

“The general public barely knows this industry exists. Yet it’s an industry that has been responsible for such poor quality service that lives have been lost, that the nation was embarrassed on a global stage in 2012, that the government has been defrauded, that vulnerable people, young and old, around the country, have been repeatedly let down by the state, and still it remains one of the things on which the political class pins its hope for the delivery of public services. Without true transparency, accountability and a market that allows a proper diversity of providers to flourish, the same horrifying stories will be generated, time and again. Until then, the shadow state continues to thrive.”