In the meeting, G4S verbally recommitted to doing business in Israel. This came as a surprise to even the most cynical amongst us. Just a few months ago, in March 2016, G4S announced in its Annual Report that it would be selling off its Israeli branch G4S Israel (along with G4S youth services in the UK and US). This announcement came after several years of campaigning, and some significant campaign victories this year as three UN agencies stated that they had not renewed contracts with the company.
So what to make of this seeming reversal of position?
In the past, in efforts to shake off protests and avoid scrutiny, G4S has made verbal and written promises not to renew certain contracts dealing with Israeli checkpoints, police stations and the Israeli prisons. After watching the company fail to keep its own deadlines over the past years, we remained suspicious of the March announcement and followed up with a request for more detail. Leaders of major British trade unions alongside War on Want, Palestine Solidarity Campaign and the Stop G4S Coalition wrote to G4S in advance of the AGM requesting clarification on the announcement and on the dates that the existing contracts would end.
G4S responded to the letter stating that the ‘contracts in question’ (including contracts for equipment and services to Israeli prisons, a West Bank police station, and checkpoints) are due to expire by the end of 2017 and will not be renewed. This was reaffirmed in an official G4S statement to the press on the morning of the AGM.
However, inside the AGM (where no recording devices are allowed) G4S executives were more candid about their intentions. We asked the board if G4S would be ending its 25 year contract for an Israeli police academy as a part of its sale of G4S Israel. Executive director Ashley Almanza said that G4S ‘will only conclude the transaction [the sale of G4S Israel] if we receive satisfactory terms’ and that G4S ‘will continue to operate in Israel even if we sell off G4S Israel’.
When asked to give a clear and direct answer about whether G4S would still be holding contracts in Israel after the sale of its subsidiary, Almanza and his team stubbornly refused to answer.
When pressed on the matter of continued G4S business with the illegal Israeli settlements and Apartheid Wall, Almanza dodged the question, stating that ‘G4S, like the UK government, opposes anti-Israel boycotts.’
G4S: part of the BDS backlash
What makes G4S so intent on restating its relationship to Israel so soon after committing to sell off its Israeli business?
A few days before the AGM, G4S released a statement specifically to reject ‘comments by the BDS movement and anti-Israel pressure groups claiming that their actions have caused the G4S group to sell G4S Israel.’
This is predictable given that in recent months the UK and Israeli governments have stepped up their attack on the BDS movement. In the UK, this has mainly been through government statements and proposals designed specifically to silence BDS activities. In the USA, this played out with states like Illinois passing laws to allow for blacklisting of companies that appear to be taking BDS action (potentially G4S was warned about this possibility). Given that a wide range of US groups have gone public on their joining the Stop G4S campaign, the timing of such statements is no coincidence.
G4S: you can run but you can’t hide
This year G4S attempted to avoid scrutiny and protest by moving the AGM out of central London. Its plan didn’t work. Local activists from Sutton for Peace and Justice welcomed Stop G4S campaigners from elsewhere to hold a lively protest outside the AGM. Activists in Manchester also held protests at the G4S headquarters in their city.
Inside the meeting, it became clear that G4S abuses all over the world are still a pressing issue for many. Some 20 questions were allowed from the floor and all but two touched on G4S abuses. In addition to questions about G4S abuses in Palestine, shareholders activists grilled G4S on the scandal exposed at a youth detention facility in Medway (Kent) in January 2016, where G4S staff brutally assaulted young inmates. Others brought up cases of negligence in detention centres run by G4S, particularly in HMP Altcourse, where levels of self-harm and suicide amongst inmates are high.
There were also repeated questions about the ongoing G4S ‘red doors’ scandal that broke earlier this year, where G4S contractors were found to be painting the doors of asylum-seekers red, stigmatising them and making them targets for violence. One attendee implicated G4S in collaboration with the UAE Ministry of Justice, accused of routine use of torture.
The G4S executives were furious when we suggested from the floor that there is a common thread running through all G4S work: profiting from violence and abuse.
What next for the Stop G4S campaign?
Perhaps G4S will follow through on its promise to sell off its business in Israel, while insisting that it is not doing so as a result of the campaign against G4S and contracts lost. Or maybe G4S will continue to do business in Israel in less obvious ways.
Regardless, it is clear now more than ever that G4S cannot be trusted, and that our campaigns against the company must continue.