Along with making Kiwis physically sick and noticeably grumpier, the pandemic is proving a bonanza for our $3 billion-a-year security industry as businesses grapple with Covid-19 fallout.
King’s Security owner Zack Simpson says his guards recently intervened when a middle-aged woman in a Christchurch supermarket flew off the handle and whacked another female customer who innocently got in her way.
“It is literally the most unexpected people who are flipping out over the smallest things … and everyone is asking for security, not just supermarkets and construction [sites].”
New Zealand has more than 34,441 companies and individuals permitted to do security work, and last year the Private Security Personnel Licensing Authority received almost 12,000 applications for business licences and employee certificates of approval (COA), the highest number since it was established a decade ago, and well up on the 7773 lodged in 2019
Training provider C4 Group trained 6000 new security guards last year, and First Security has hired an additional 1600 permanent staff since the pandemic started, half of them working in managed isolation and quarantine (MIQ) facilities where it holds the lion’s share of private contracts.
When MIQ hotels drop from 32 to just four First Security chief executive Tim Covic says growing demand for security services means they will have no trouble redeploying staff.
The need to enforce mask-wearing, check vaccine passes, and deal with short-tempered customers behaving badly has sparked heightened security at shops, health centres, public libraries, and hospitality outlets.
Most of New Zealand’s 1778 licensed security companies are small businesses that cannot match the higher wages paid by national companies, with one likening it to a corner dairy going up against Pak ’n Save.
The tight labour market and unsociable part-time hours also make recruitment tough, raising concerns about new guards starting work with little or no training, and that undesirables such as gang members may slip through vetting procedures.
Larger operators dominate the New Zealand Security Association whose 250 members employ about 85 per cent of the security workforce.
Chief executive Gary Morrison says they were already up to 2000 workers short pre-Covid as a result of greater emphasis on health and safety, and increased focus on risks associated with events and crowded places following the mosque shootings.
Many local authorities also rely on security contractors to handle noise, freedom camping and animal control complaints after hours, but he says by far the biggest increase in security had been in the retail sector.
Retail NZ chief executive Greg Harford says an undercurrent of aggression and violence has quadrupled over the pandemic, forcing businesses to increase protection for shoppers and staff.“
“We’re hearing about it from shops where you wouldn’t think customers would be getting aggro … sewing shops, grocery and hardware stores, pretty much anywhere is experiencing this issue, and I think some kind of deep-seated stress in the community is leading to it.”
Added to that, Harford says growth in retail crime, already worth an estimated $1b a year, is leading to more organised and brazen thefts by people loading trolleys with high value goods and simply walking off without paying, threatening anyone who tries to intervene.
Countdown now has security guards in 95 supermarkets and since the pandemic kicked off, it has logged thousands of incidents.
Local authorities have also significantly upped security, and public libraries, normally havens of peace and tranquillity, frequently bear the brunt of outrage over Covid-19 rules.
Auckland Council says security requirements have increased between 30 and 50 per cent across its public facilities, and spending at corporate buildings went from just over $80,000 pre-Covid to $126,000 in 2021, largely due to fewer staff being in buildings.
Security incidents increased dramatically after introduction of vaccine passes, with more than 400 reported in the three months from December.
The Christchurch City Council is spending an extra $47,000 a week to pay for up to 22 additional personnel a day, and in Wellington ratepayers are coughing up for an extra 990 hours of security weekly.
Red Badge Group was heavily involved in event security pre-Covid, but has continued to diversify, winning contracts at Te Papa and universities, and now has about 2850 workers on its books, the majority of them casual employees.
Chief executive Andy Gollings says people are less inclined to go out – be it to shopping malls or a rugby match – if they don’t feel safe in crowded places, and businesses are beginning to appreciate that more.
“That’s where the value of security has increased.”
Pressure on vetting
Licensing Authority chairwoman Trish McConnell says the pandemic has had a big impact, and emergency appointments allowing guards to start work immediately before receiving their identity badges increased substantially, largely due to MIQ demands.
“It was not unusual to get 10 to 15 [emergency] applications a day during lockdowns in 2021, pre-Covid we’d get one or two a week, if that.”
Certificates of approval and licences are issued for five years, and applicants can be disqualified for a host of reasons such convictions for violence or dishonesty offences, and for failing good character checks.
McConnell says police vetting in some areas was patchy, but it has improved and Police objections to licences and COAs increased substantially from 82 in 2019 to 438 last year.
She believes the rise that is partly because security companies are struggling to recruit people of the right calibre.
“So they’re more likely to take a punt on someone who was marginal that they wouldn’t have before, and they’re the ones who get objections because they’re desperately needed, and people aren’t doing adequate checks.”
Seven patched gang members or associates were stripped of their COAs in 2021, including Comanchero members Villiami Taani and Mseui Tufui, who had theirs revoked after they were sentenced to lengthy jail terms for an execution-style shooting that left a woman with a bullet lodged in her brain and her husband dead.
Police submissions to the licensing authority said having gang members working in security at bars and clubs facilitated illegal activities, they could allow entry to fellow gang members who were armed, and some gangs had strict rules against interacting with or assisting police, which was incompatible with the responsibilities of a security guard.
Morrison says there are still concerns about vetting because some gangs put up unpatched “clean skins” with no criminal convictions for COAs.
The industry relied on police intelligence to pick that up, and to identify people with a history of family harm incidents indicating a propensity for violence.
In seeking cancellation of a certificate for a man convicted of threatening to kill and breaching a protection order last year, police revealed that he had been involved in five family harm events, four separate protection orders, and attempting to extort money by violence and gang intimidation.
When asked for comment on vetting standards, police said they actively recommend declining or revoking individuals’ licences if concerns come to their attention at any stage, and the ultimate decision on granting licences lies with the Licensing Authority.
MIQ has also had its problems and a First Security guard who leaked a list of Auckland isolees on Snapchat was fired, as were two others involved in inappropriate contact with returnees.
Training on the job
New security guards can start work with a temporary COA giving them three months to complete mandatory training on conflict management and legal issues, and some temporary certificates have been rolled over two or three times because of disruptions to training.
C4 Group founder Chris Lawton says learning the basics takes about two days, but technically new hires can start frontline work with no training.
Although larger companies will buddy novices up with a more experienced staff members, “a lot wouldn’t have that capacity, so there’s quite a health and safety risk”
Lawton wants New Zealand to follow Australia where aspiring guards must do the equivalent of 10 days training before even applying for a licence, and he is also unhappy that someone with as little as 12 months security experience can set up a security business in New Zealand.
Morrison says the Private Security Personnel and Private Investigators Act, passed hastily in time for the Rugby World Cup, is badly in need of an overhaul, but Associate Justice Minister Aupito William Sio has no plans to review it.
In-house security personnel, such as those directly employed by the likes of The Warehouse, are not required to have COAs, and the Security Association believes they should.
It also wants refresher training made mandatory, and different classes of licences to recognise specialist skills such as risk assessment for crowded places.
Morrison says the current definition of a security consultant doesn’t differentiate between someone selling a $100 alarm system, and a specialist risk analyst advising government departments on security matters.
Who’s guarding us
Prior to the pandemic, many new security guards were international students working part-time, and McConnell says the industry still attracts large numbers of Maori, Pacifica and Indian employees.
“There are something like 54 pages, 20 per page, of Singhs in our system.”
The Ministry of Social Development has helped 480 beneficiaries retrain as security guards over the past five years, and companies like First scooped up workers made redundant from tourism and hospitality jobs.
But competition for staff is fierce and Simpson who says some recruits only last a day. “People think it’s going to be full of excitement every day, but sometimes it’s really boring.”
Other times it is full on, so King’s Security offers in-house martial arts training for employees, and Simpson is considering equipping them with body cameras after close to 20 staff assaults last year
“Punching, kicking, spitting, throwing products (including a full bottle of cider), knives pulled on you, you name it.”
The industry is still battling the old stereotype of bouncers who use their muscle rather than their mouth to deescalate or resolve conflict, and although the gender mix is still 80 per cent male, some employers are making concerted efforts to hire more women who are valued for their communication skills.
At the Auckland War Memorial Museum where Kym Carter works, 40 per cent of security staff are female, and she says it is quite a change from working at Auckland University where, with only two women in a security team of 32, she felt the odd one out.
The museum may not be as exciting as her stint in aviation security where she searched planes for explosives and weapons, but it pays above living wage, and she loves it.
“[The museum] was like a part of me growing up, I feel so privileged to be there. I like helping people.”
Pandemic pay off
The silver lining to Covid-19 is that it has helped push up pay rates because of the Government’s insistence that security contractors employed at MIQ hotels and by 39 government departments and agencies get at least the living wage ($22.75 per hour), a move followed by some local authorities.
E tū union organiser for about 1000 security guard members Mat Danaher says the sector is a sitter for a fair pay agreement, and the union is set to kick this off as soon as the necessary legislation is passed later this year.
A fair pay agreement could set minimum standards for training, health and safety and career progression, which Danaher says is important because about 40 per cent of the 478 new security businesses licenced last year were sole traders, and they don’t necessarily have the required business acumen.
“They genuinely have the best of intentions, they employ friends, people from their whanau, their community or their rugby club.
“They’ve seen there’s money to be made in the industry, but they don’t understand employment practices, they don’t bother to put employment agreements together, and they don’t pay tax because nobody explains it to them.”
First Security, part of Wilson Parking and ultimately owned by a wealthy Hong Kong family, paid its MIQ workers a bonus on top of the living wage, and they will lose that bonus when MIQ ceases.
However, the company has a target date, which it declined to reveal, for paying all its workers the living wage, which Covic says is becoming the norm for the security industry, and he questions whether a fair pay agreement is the way to achieve that.
“My view is that market forces are doing just that.”
Covic believes technology can help overcome the labour shortage and lessen the risks for employees, so the company is trialling drones and robots that can be remotely monitored by security staff.
He says drones effectively cover a much wider area than a human on the ground, and robots can learn a patrol path, collecting a myriad of data as they go.
“Demand is outstripping supply, [in other words] people, so technology is the only way we can meet that demand.”