It’s tiring keeping yourself awake all night, but there’s little work to do until dawn breaks and the park comes alive again.
Nearby, the Olympic Stadium glows in the darkness. The surveillance blimp hovers above, monitoring a throng of people leaving the park. By 11pm it’s only us, the night workers, who remain.
Devoid of visitors, the park is a very different landscape. “It’s beautiful, like a space village,” says one of my co-workers. In the calm, cleaners move around preparing for the next day.
The night shift is popular with the younger G4S workers, and a crowd of teenagers arrive two hours early to be sure of being deployed. Working at the gates during the day is regimented and there are very few breaks. Locog officials are always around, keeping a close eye and reporting any minor misdemeanours. “Day shifts are too busy. On the night shift you can do what you want,” explains one of the regulars.
The night before I didn’t manage to get deployed. Instead, I joined the group of 50 hopefuls waiting at Cherry Park, the main G4S hub in Stratford. We stayed there for four hours, watching the Olympics on TV, chatting, making tea and playing cards. It was frustrating.
At 11pm a request for workers at Greenwich came through. Fifteen of us leapt at the chance and headed off. When we arrived it was clear we weren’t needed there either. After we had waited for another hour, our team leader arrived. He was stressed out. “We can’t fit you in, I’m sorry. You’ll have to go home.”
Some of the group were angry; they’d been counting on being paid for a full shift. But no one was surprised: the chaos of scheduling is a common problem when you work for G4S.
Those who are lucky enough to get on the night shift seem to enjoy it. It’s very tiring keeping yourself awake all night, but there’s little work to do. G4S has more than 35 of us manning the Rapiscan x-ray machines at the gate I’m working at.
From 10pm–5am we have fewer than 100 people coming through. It’s clear that some simple reorganisation could trim the workforce down to seven. Instead, we spend the night hanging around by the x-ray machines or going for long breaks in the empty canteens. Everyone is hyper, buzzed up on ProPlus, energy drinks and cheap coffee.
At night, anything goes. Operating the Rapiscan is the best job. I’m trained to do this, but because I’m not a regular I’m relegated to body searches. Others on the team take over.
There’s an 18-year-old operating the x-ray machine on my team. He might not have been trained by G4S, but he’s seriously bright and is running our team efficiently. He points out better ways to screen the bags and is an excellent body searcher too. Further evidence that the story of the G4S Olympics seems to have been one of effort by those on the ground prevailing over disorganisation from above.
It’s a humid night and by 4am we’re all beginning to wilt. Three more hours to go. The light in the white tents is attracting huge mosquitos that bite through our cheap nylon trousers. G4S bumbags are stuffed with prohibited items “liberated” from the rubbish boxes.
A bored policeman wanders over to chat. He shows me his gun and we trade stories of screwed-up rotas. Apparently the eight-hour police shifts have crept up to 14 hours. He’s looking forward to the end of the Games.
At 5.30am, just when I think I can’t go on any longer, the park comes alive. Dawn is breaking and it’s suddenly manic as the army, police and workers start flooding in. The x-ray machine is back on, the metal detector starts beeping, and in the final hour I do more than 30 body searches. The Olympic machine is gearing up for another day.
An hour later I’m ordered to stand down as another body searcher takes over. I’ve never felt this tired. Tonight has been another insight into G4S mismanagement. Yet the initiative of workers on the ground is what saves the company from chaos. Sometimes I can’t help thinking they don’t deserve the team they have.