In a flurry of messages in a WhatsApp group on a Friday night in March, staff from the Department of Jobs were on a harried hunt for security firms.

“Any ideas on good security companies,” one of the messages said.

“Gotta be careful with a lot of security companies,” another warned.

The public servants had been given the unenviable task of sourcing hundreds of security guards within 24 hours to fill Victoria’s hotels, just in time for the first international arrivals who would be put in mandatory quarantine.

The WhatsApp group, called ‘Working with Vic A-Team’ and surely named after the Working For Victoria scheme set up to help find jobs for people in the pandemic, began throwing up ideas of the security firms they’d worked with before.

“Wilson’s yes,” one wrote.

“Reputable,” another replied.

“Wilson’s are the kings of the market for sure down there.”

Another company name was thrown into the mix, but that firm had been “hit and miss” with “shitty managers in the past”, wrote one of the members of the group.

“MSS views anyone?” someone asked of the firm MSS Security.

“MSS also reputable. Not worked with them. Respected in the industry.”

The members of the department’s employer engagement team turned to professional networking website LinkedIn when they fired up the messages group the next morning.

“Looks like you can try premium for free to send messages,” was a suggestion.

“How much is premium? Is it useful if I upgrade?”

Mentioned among the messages tendered to the inquiry into hotel quarantine on Thursday was a hint as to why one security firm was chosen and became the preferred government contractor for the program, nudging out its more established competitors.

“Unified. Good but small,” said one of the messages.

“Unified had just received all of the contracts for Woolies, Dan Murphy’s, BWS and fourth in the chain in reg Vic. So growing and showing capability. Plus doing a lot in inclusion pre working with us. I’d add to list.”

From day one, Jobs Department staff were referring to Unified, a small firm with 46 permanent employees in Victoria, as fulfilling the department’s noble aim of social inclusion – being Aboriginal-owned and hiring guards who had lost their jobs during the pandemic.

But of the three firms the Jobs Department chose to supply guards to the doomed hotel quarantine program, the firm with the social inclusion record was the only one not on the government’s preferred panel of suppliers and its hiring fell outside the department’s procurement guidelines.

There was a significant risk, a department procurement specialist wrote in an email, in having a “non-approved firm providing security and effectively enforcing government regulation”.

Jobs Department secretary Simon Phemister told the inquiry this week that Unified was kept on because it performed well and could supply guards on short notice, with his department seeking further approvals to use a company not on the preferred suppliers list.

“Given it was a permitted procurement activity and it would not disrupt the flow of the operation, we were best placed to continue with the existing security providers,” Mr Phemister said.

Unified hired almost all of its guards through subcontracting and the heads of the company told the inquiry the Jobs Department never asked them about the arrangements. Department officials under Mr Phemister claimed they didn’t know the practice, a feature of the industry, even took place.

Down the line of control from the head contractors to the subcontractors to the guards they hired, there was another WhatsApp group.

Known only as ‘Security 16’ in the inquiry, the guard said he was hired over the messaging app to work at one of the hotels before he moved to the Rydges on Swanston.

He told the inquiry he didn’t know it was a designated COVID-19 hotel, housing returned travellers positive with the virus, when he started working there. Nor, he said, was he given any training before he started and, once there, he was instructed to use the same mask and gloves for an entire shift.

He was one of more than 30 security personnel that caught COVID-19 while working at the Rydges on Swanston and the Stamford Plaza, sparking Victoria’s second wave of the virus.

It was a workforce, Health Minister Jenny Mikakos said in her evidence on Thursday, that upon reflection was too high risk for hotel quarantine.

Some of the pitfalls of the industry were identified early, by the same Jobs Department staff on that Friday night in March in their ‘Working with Vic A-Team’ message group.

“Cowboy industry," one wrote.

“Needs to be reputable. Don’t want [redacted] rogue [redacted] prowling the corridors.”

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