Home / EU Social Dialogue / Sectoral ESD / Private security / General overview

General overview of sector

The private security sector covers a wide array of activities, ranging from the surveillance of personal assets and property to the transport of valuables, via personal protection, access control and even the design, installation and management of alarm systems. It comprises some large multinational corporations, such as Group 4 Securicor, Securitas, Prosegur and Brink’s, in addition to numerous smaller companies.

In 2008 this sector encompassed 50,000 companies and had a turnover of €15 billion, compared with 33,000 companies in the EU-27 in 2006. Growth has been particularly robust in the new Member States. Total employment in the surveillance of persons and the transport of valuables has been estimated at 1.7 million workers (as against 1.4 million in 2006), the vast majority of them men (80%). There are approximately 237 private security agents for every 100,000 Europeans on average. In 2006 three countries accounted for almost half of all private security jobs in Europe: the United Kingdom (22%), Germany (12%) and Poland (12%).

Approaches vary markedly from one EU Member State to another as concerns legislation, supervision by the public authorities, conditions for entering the profession and levels of employee training. The range of activities performed by this sector differs too: in Sweden, for example, it includes ambulance services and fire-fighting; in the United Kingdom it even extends to prisoner transfers and the management of prisons.

The sector has expanded considerably throughout Europe in recent years. This can be explained partly by the development of new types of private space (shopping centres, cultural facilities, sporting arenas, leisure parks, etc.) serving the general public. But other explanatory factors have to do with the added burden on the public police service, owing to an increasing social demand for security, and with the fiscal situation of governments: funding shortages are compelling the public authorities to refocus their activities on core police work (those involving the judicial system) and to outsource a certain number of police activities such as static guarding and the patrolling of public thoroughfares. Finally, the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 helped to raise the profile of this sector.

This general trend poses the problem of the linkage between the public and private sectors with regard to security, and the EU Member States have responded in very different ways. It also raises the question of how the sector needs to change to adapt to these new circumstances. In actual fact, private security is faced with several difficulties: fierce competition between firms can lead to practices that are harmful to employees and impede smooth market operation (dumping, recourse to pseudo-self-employment in order to circumvent labour legislation, and reverse auctions whereby contracts are awarded to the lowest bidder). Moreover, the profession is deemed unattractive and has difficulty in retaining its workforce, owing to both the nature of the work and working conditions (stress, isolation, night and weekend work), poor job prospects and low wages. Hence the sector is seeking to bolster its image by improving working conditions (especially as concerns stress) and through vocational training.

Governments, for their part, play an ambiguous role in respect of this sector. On the one hand they attempt to “clean up” the profession, but on the other – as clients – they drive down prices, which contributes to preserving the dubious practices operating in the sector.

ETUI and Observatoire Social Européen (2010) European Sectoral Social Dialogue Factsheets. Project coordinated by Christophe Degryse, online publication available at www.worker-participation.eu/EU-Social-Dialogue/Sectoral-ESD