the Disillusioned kid: Scabs For Hire
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Friday, August 27, 2004

Scabs For Hire

I am quite a fan of the writings of American activist Paul Street. A vociferous critic of the invasion and occupation of Iraq and an anti-capitalist, many of his writings have sought to draw the parallels between US policy abroad and at home. This informed the title of his blog (now subsumed into the Z-Net Blog) and forthcoming book: Empire and Inequality. He argues that policies at home and abroad reflect and reinforce each other in what he, as a former Marxist, describes as a "dialectical relationship" (whatever that means!). Examples he cites include similarities between the treatment of detainees at Abu Ghraib and Americans held in the American prison system and the fact, as reported by the New York Times, that the US military "mirrors Working-Class America," with representatives of the elites who make the decision to go to war being under-represented. This is an insight I find compelling. While it applies very clearly to American policies, it is not difficult to find British examples. A report in the Guardian (via James at Dead Men Left) reveals just one: with the use of private "contractors" in roles formerly filled by professional soldiers, which has become common in Iraq, being considered as a possible response to strike action by firefighters.

The use of private security firms (probably more properly described as mercenaries) is not a new phenomenon, but in Iraq it has occurred on an unprecedented scale. Writing in March, Robert Fisk and Severin Carrell reported that there were as many as 400 firms operating in Iraq involved in a wide variety of activities:
Security firms are escorting convoys. Armed men from an American company are guarding US troops at night inside the former presidential palace where Paul Bremer, the American proconsul, has his headquarters. When a US helicopter crashed near Fallujah last year, an American security firm took control of the area and began rescue operations.
The full extent of such firms influence is unclear and they are not counted among "coalition" casualty figures. It is clear that their presence in Iraq is extensive and is not limited to what you would normally consider "security" tasks. When the stories of torture at Abu Ghraib began to attract attention, it emerged that the US had even hired private contractors as interrogators, many of whom were directly involved in abuses.

Although the dispute between the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) and the government which has simmered for years now looks as though it has been resolved, it appeared, even very recently, as though it might again flare up and see firefighters downing tools. The Guardian reported that in preparation for this eventuality, the government had been training 11,500 members of the armed forces in preparation for them having to provide fire services in the event of a strike. This figure, however, is 7,500 lower than the 19,000 soldiers, sailors and airmen stationed around the country during the 2002/3 dispute. Contractors could be hired to make up the shortfall. There was also a suggestion that if the government sought to requisition red fire appliances, contractors might be used to transfer them to military depots as police and military chiefs were concerned about their personnel crossing picket lines and being drawn into clashes with firefighters.

Talks apparently took place between government officials (possibly even John Prescott himself) and "senior figures" in Group 4 Securicor over "capacity". Mr Prescott's office issued the obligatory denial that it had any plans to use private contractors during a strike, but the report cites "well placed sources" who insist that the issue was discussed within the department. That the threat of strike has been averted means that the idea is likely to be put on a backburner, but it is not inconceivable that it could be resurrected at some point in the future.

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