Securing expats on large-scale projects

March 2015 Integrated Solutions

Large engineering projects take place all over the world, all the time. It is common for the companies tasked with designing and building these enormous projects to bring in highly qualified skills from other countries to ensure the task is completed to specification and on time.

When projects happen in First World countries, bringing in expats is normally a matter of ensuring you have the right documentation and appropriate accommodation for the skilled people and their families. In long-term projects, schools for the expats’ children may also be required. When it comes to less safe countries, the ability to attract highly skilled expats will also depend on what plans are made to ensure the safety of these individuals and their families.

“The problem when dealing with expats is that they are human,” says Nico Snyman, CEO of Crest Advisory Africa. “This means you can’t confine them to a camp or secure estate, as they will want to have a life while on the job. This applies even more to their families, as spouses will want to meet new people, go shopping and let their children have a social life as well. Children will also need schooling.”

The solution requires a similar approach to any risk management project. One needs to determine the risks that the expats may face and develop structured and well defined solutions to mitigate the risks without making the people feel like they are in a prison.

Who speaks foreign?

“When foreigners arrive to work, quite often they and their families don’t have a grasp of the local language, they have no local structure and don’t know where to go or who to ask when they have a problem,” Snyman adds. “Moreover, while one member of the family may be working long hours, the others will probably feel alone and uncertain. And when they talk to the working family member about it, it can affect the worker’s productivity and potentially even the project as a whole.”

A solution some companies adopt is to rent accommodation for the expats in a secure estate. This may work in certain instances, but one has to consider the expats with children. While some housing complexes have schools close by or within the estate, foreign parents may wish to send their kids to a school that teaches in their native language to ensure they maintain their education according to their home country’s syllabus and that they follow the same term tables, since the expat is only local for a limited period of time and the children must be aligned with the country’s education system.

Will the stay-at-home mother be comfortable fighting through morning traffic for an hour or more to drop the kids at school and then going through more stress on the way back if the school is not nearby? Then there is the question of her safety and security. Does she know what to do in a hijack situation? What about in the case of an accident? Will she be able to communicate effectively? In the South African context, does she know that paying your fine directly to a police officer is not how it’s done in this country (not legally anyway), and how will she handle it if a bribe is demanded?

Whom does the expat phone in these circumstances? More importantly, do they know where to go to find a doctor or dentist for the routine vicissitudes of life?

Snyman explains that the hiring company should address these issues in the manner that best suits it and the expats. It may not sound like a risk management approach, but keeping highly skilled people happy will ensure their commitment to the project and the productivity required.

Suggestions to manage expats

Snyman suggests that expats and their families can be handled efficiently and everyone can be content if the security team at the hiring company considers a few points in dealing with their expat risk management process. This is a limited list of solutions, the actual process is not as simple and the list not as short, but it serves as an example of the ways in which expat risks can be effectively dealt with.

1. Find accommodation that meets predefined security standards in secure areas close to important facilities such as schools. Do not let cost push you into choosing risky accommodation or a place far from schools and other locations expats may wish to frequent.

2. Prepare a ‘user manual’ before they arrive with information such as medical services in their vicinity and telephone numbers, police stations with numbers, routes to malls and other shopping experiences in reasonably safe areas etc. Ensure there are set routes to the workplace as well to prevent anyone getting lost. The security team will have to monitor these routes to ensure they remain the safest.

3. The manual must also explain the nuances of the country they are in, where they can safely go and where to avoid.

4. Find or build a social environment for the expats; consulates are normally helpful in this regard. It is also a good idea to arrange to meet the spouses in one sitting once a month (to start with) to discuss any burning issues they’re facing and create an effective Esprit de Corps to deal with challenges. This structure also serves as a support network for information flow. This will also allow them to socialise and communicate with each other in solving problems.

5. Ensure there is a contact person available 24x7 that speaks their language. When trouble strikes, people often revert to their native language and having someone to call for help makes an enormous difference and builds confidence.

6. Ensure the expats are able to communicate with each other and whomever they need to with cellular communications and even GPS tracking. This is not a means to track their every move, but if something happens, a GPS trail can at least show the security structure and police where to start looking.

7. Snyman also recommends including the police in this communications network. If there are a large number of expats in an area, a meet-and-greet with their local station commander and his officers can go a long way to creating a sense of security.

“There are many more issues to consider when ensuring expats are safe when visiting South Africa or any of the other countries that are considered security risks,” explains Snyman. “The basic idea, however, is to plan ahead and remove the uncertainty that comes with moving to a new country.

“There are tremendous negative implications if something happens, from morale, to delayed production, people packing up and going home, penalties for tardy completion of phases of the project and so forth. You therefore need an all-inclusive, layered approach to risk management that addresses all the risks expats face (as defined in your specific objectives, supported by a comprehensive risk assessment process), supported by strong communication and education.

“By providing all the information the expats and their families require, you instil a sense of discipline in their daily lives which makes them more comfortable and allows them to focus on normal issues such as building a social life, making friends etc. It will also allow them to go home at the end of their contract with a good story to tell instead of yet another crime horror story from South Africa.”

Nico Snyman is the chief executive officer (CEO) of Crest Advisory Africa (Pty) Ltd, specialising in risk management, corporate governance and advanced technologies. For more information, contact +27 (0)11 534 8454 (office) or on his mobile +27 (0)76 403 4307,, or visit the website at

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