August 27, 2021

All work, no vaccines: Security guards and COVID-19

Private security guards are at the forefront of maintaining COVID-19 safety norms. Their job is riskier than ever. Yet, many of them remain unvaccinated.

4 min read

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a devastating impact on all sections of society but has disproportionately hurt marginalised communities. They have suffered due to loss of livelihoods, and lack of access to food, shelter, healthcare, and other basic needs. The pandemic has exposed the structural disadvantages faced by marginalised communities—they are overexposed to contagion because of the low-paid and precarious nature of their work. Due to limited access to healthcare and social protection, they are also under-protected.

The impact of COVID-19 on security guards

When the pandemic started, thousands of security guards in gated communities in India were rendered jobless, and those still at work faced health risks with no social security. Most private security guards in metropolitan cities such as Delhi, Mumbai, and Kolkata are migrant workers who work for 12 hours a day, seven days a week without any written contract or social security. One study found that most private security guards earn meagre monthly salaries of INR 5,000-6,000, with savings of INR 500-1,500. Due to their migrant status, most live in rented accommodation, spending a major part of their earnings on conveyance, accommodation, ration, and remittance. They are left with hardly any disposable income to take care of other expenses such as emergency healthcare.

While the private security industry is organised and regulated, most security personnel engaged in it are unorganised. The same study revealed that merely 1–1.5 percent of private security personnel were members of trade unions, giving them very little bargaining power. Despite comprehensive legal provisions that safeguard the rights of security guards, there was very little awareness about their dues and privileges under various labour laws.

Workers walking towards the city from the outskirts-Security guards COVID-19
There is a looming fear of contagion for the security guards, who are literal gatekeepers against the virus. | Picture courtesy: Flickr

While many workers returned home during the lockdown, those who retained their jobs—mostly in private houses and residential buildings—had to work extra hours, risking their lives. With social distancing and cashless deliveries becoming the new norm, private security guards had to take up extra responsibilities. In residential societies, their responsibilities have extended to making sure that the compound gates are always closed and delivery executives wait outside, guarding packages till they are picked up by residents, sanitising the hands of the visitors, and fumigating the entire compound. At hospitals, security guards regularly interact with and assist patients infected with COVID-19. Often, they are also responsible for ensuring the safe transfer of patients and medical personnel, to and from isolation zones. Others, such as the guards stationed at stores, ensure that government-mandated social distancing protocols are adhered to as much as possible. In all of this, there is a looming fear of contagion for the security guards, who are literal gatekeepers against the virus.

Security guards have not been prioritised for vaccination

The guidelines for the COVID-19 vaccination process published by the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare include drivers, security staff, and sanitation workers as support staff who are at maximum risk of getting infected and are in need of immediate vaccination. Despite this, private security guards across the country have been left in the lurch.

Private security companies need to examine the actual and potential human rights impact of their action or inaction.

A news report from Ludhiana stated that as of March 2021, hundreds of private security guards were neither vaccinated, nor given priority by their agencies for vaccination. The security agencies regularly sensitise their employees about following safety protocols and provide them masks and sanitisers, but a vaccination plan is nowhere in sight. Another report, this one from May 2021, highlighted that Ernakulam in Kochi, Kerala, has more than one lakh security guards, of which approximately 500 security guards in Ernakulam had contracted COVID-19, and less than 2,000 were vaccinated. The State Association of Private Security Industry in Kochi said that they had asked the state government to vaccinate the security guards on priority, but their demand was yet to be met. In Kolkata, there are approximately 3 lakh security guards at hospitals, malls, and airports, some of whom even handle biomedical waste. The Central Association of Private Security Industry has written to both the state and the centre to bring security guards under the mass vaccination programme, but has not heard back from either.

The business case for free vaccination

Governments across the world have an obligation to ensure that companies respect human rights. As articulated in the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises, and the OECD Due Diligence Guidance for Responsible Business Conduct, it is imperative for business enterprises to not only comply with all applicable laws but also to respect human rights. This becomes even more critical during an extraordinary global health crisis such as the COVID-19 pandemic. Human rights due diligence processes are dynamic, and companies are responsible for conducting human rights risk assessments regularly while adapting to changes in the operating context. In this regard, private security companies need to examine the actual and potential human rights impact of their action or inaction. Their business decisions to vaccinate or not vaccinate their employees, especially security guards, have the potential to impact not only their business operations but also the operations of their business partners that employ private security guards.

Vaccines are key to bringing the economy back to its pre-pandemic state. The sooner employees are vaccinated, the safer it will be for businesses to function. In order to achieve long-term success by expanding business operations, it is essential to have a vaccination strategy in place which will keep employees, customers, and communities safe.

In the case of security guards, despite being categorised as frontline workers, neither the state nor the private security agencies have taken responsibility for prioritising their vaccination. The private security industry has been growing significantly in India. Despite the many struggles that COVID-19 has brought, it also provides private security agencies an opportunity to build employee goodwill, which will go a long way in ensuring sustained progress for the industry.  

Know more

  • Learn more about India’s private security industry here, here, and here.

Do more

  • Ask private security guards in your residential complex and/or office premises if they have been vaccinated. If not, ask them why and consider guiding them through the vaccination process.
  • Run a fundraiser to vaccinate security staff at your residence or workplace.
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Devika Nair-Image
Devika Nair

Devika Nair is pursuing her MPhil in Theory and Practice of Human Rights at the University of Oslo. A law graduate from the University of Warwick, she has experience in human rights advocacy, anchoring access to justice projects as well as supporting emergency humanitarian response at national and international organisations, such as Amnesty International in Malaysia, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), and Human Rights Law Network, India. She is also the founder of NyāyaSarathy Foundation.

Sumati Thusoo-Image
Sumati Thusoo

Sumati Thusoo is a research author at the Department of Sociology at Monk Prayogshala. She has worked with the International Organisation for Migration (IOM - UN Migration), United Nations Office on Drugs and Crimes (UNODC), and other nonprofits—both national and international—in the past. She is also the founder of NyāyaSarathy Foundation. Her past work has been on modern slavery, business and human rights, and gender justice.