The company that runs Australia’s offshore immigration detention centres has warned staff they can be fired as a result of who their friends are on Facebook or who follows them on Twitter and has forbidden them from joining political parties or churches that oppose offshore processing.
It has also cautioned them not to “embarrass” the company or the government or reveal how asylum seekers are treated.
Transfield Services has issued an addendum to its social media policy for staff on Nauru and Manus Island that workers said severely limited their civil liberties, as well as political and personal freedoms.
The policy says workers must not reveal any information about Transfield’s operations, or any information that “relates to the treatment of transferees in relation to the operations”.
“Due to the nature of [offshore processing] operations, there is a heightened risk that the publication of information or comments about the operations may pose a risk to the operations, transferees and/or workers, or damage the business or reputation of Transfield Services,” it says.
Transfield specifically bans revealing publicly any “material which may damage the business or reputation of Transfield Services, embarrass Transfield Services, or injure its relationship with the department [of immigration]”.
Transfield limits with whom its staff can communicate on social media, specifically on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube.
A worker cannot communicate with an asylum seeker via social media, unless given express permission, or give out their email or postal address.
According to the policy, a Transfield worker could be fired if an asylum seeker followed them on Twitter, even if the worker did not know, and the asylum seeker has left Manus or Nauru.
“A worker must use his/her best endeavours to check that any person who seeks access to the worker’s social media is not a transferee or ex-transferee.”
The new policy, issued in February, also limited staff members’ political freedoms.
Workers cannot join a political party that does not agree with Transfield’s actions, or attend a political rally in opposition to offshore processing.
“In his/her capacity as a Transfield Services employee or contractor, a worker must not engage in any activity which may result in a conflict of interest with the conduct of the operations on behalf of the department. This includes the following types of conduct:
promoting, showing support for, or maintaining a membership with an incompatible organisation, and
showing support for the closure of offshore processing centres by engaging in activities such as public rallies or demonstrations.”
An “incompatible organisation” is defined as any group critical of offshore processing of asylum seekers.
Senior Transfield staff have told Guardian Australia the term would include political parties or churches publicly opposed to the policy, or refugee advocacy and welfare groups.
It is likely, too, to include the United Nations, Amnesty International, and the Australian Human Rights Commission, all of which have been critical of offshore processing.
Transfield Services told Guardian Australia: “Under our political involvement and support policy and equality and diversity in the workplace policy, we respect the right of our people to engage in the political process in personal capacities, and work to prevent workplace discrimination based on personal political views.”
It is designed to scare staff with the threat of losing their jobs
Worker on Nauru
“This personal engagement, however, cannot be perceived to represent Transfield Services’ views nor make use of company resources. There’s a clear conflict of interest when personal activities, posts on social media or associations oppose, or could be perceived to oppose, the work an individual undertakes.”
Staff have told Guardian Australia they resented the restrictions.
One Nauru worker said: “The purpose of this policy is to crush any dissent about offshore processing and to keep the things that are going on in the centre secret.”
“It is designed to scare staff with the threat of losing their jobs.”
The worker said restricting contact with an “incompatible organisation” was an extreme infringement of civil liberties.
“An incompatible organisation is any organisation opposed to offshore processing. Some churches are opposed to offshore processing. Is Transfield seriously telling somebody they can’t be a member of a particular church, that they can’t practise their religion or be a member of a professional body that opposes the policy?”
A worker from Manus Island said: “I am amazed they think they can actually get away with this.”
The director of legal advocacy with the Human Rights Law Centre, Daniel Webb, said the secrecy surrounding offshore detention was “excessive, self-serving and undemocratic”.
“While steps do need to be taken to protect the identities of people in detention so that relatives in their home countries aren’t endangered, the government’s crackdown on workers and whistleblowers is about hiding from view what it knows would offend most people’s sense of decency and fairness,” he said.
Despite Transfield restrictions, conditions on Manus Island and Nauru have been exposed recently by pictures, video and testimony sent by workers and asylum seekers on the island.
As well, the government-initiated Moss review found credible allegations of sexual and physical abuse of asylum seekers, including children, on Nauru.
In the aftermath of that report, the Senate voted to establish a committee to inquire into the conditions on Nauru.
Up to a dozen workers on Nauru and Manus have said they are preparing submissions and are prepared to give evidence to the inquiry, under parliamentary privilege.
Several are preparing to testify, and to provide documents that show the government knew abuse was occurring for months but did not act to stop it, or to move vulnerable people.
Regardless of the steady flow of information out of Nauru and Manus – from asylum seekers and concerned staff – detention centre managers have remained vigilant about preventing the conditions in which asylum seekers are held being revealed publicly.
They are especially worried about journalists, who are forbidden from the detention centres, visiting.
At least one Guardian journalist has been put on a misspelt “wanted” poster on Manus Island that warned staff and asylum seekers not to speak to him, and to report his presence to guards. The journalist was not in the country at the time.
The poster was made and put up by Transfield staff, acting on information provided by the department of immigration, Guardian Australia was told by a senior staff member on the island.
A spokesman for the department said: “The management and operations of the Manus regional processing centre are the responsibility of the PNG government. This notice was not made, requested to be made, authorised or posted by the Department of Immigration and Border Protection.”
Transfield declined to comment on the poster. It is not known if other journalists have been similarly treated.