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Going the extra mile


It isn't difficult to understand that there is great wealth to be made in places such as Nigeria when you consider what energy companies will endure to keep their operations running in a part of the world where violence is almost commonplace.

Imagine how a help-wanted advert for oil workers in the Niger Delta might read: "Great pay and benefits. Exclusive compound living. All ransoms paid and company will reimburse for losses due to pickpocketing, hospital stays, carjackings and other violence."

That might not draw a crowd of applicants.

But those are real, everyday risks in Nigeria, where oil companies and other businesses have decided that the return is worth those risks. Energy companies have been incredibly stubborn about leaving the region, despite scores of kidnappings and the death of some employees at the hands of militant activists fighting for a bigger share of oil revenues.

Oil companies and others in dangerous parts of the world don't generally reveal how much soul-searching goes on in executive boardrooms when decisions are made whether to send workers or hire locals for jobs that could attract kidnappers and murders. That leaves open the speculation that profits and shareholder value probably take precedence over all other concerns.

Publicly most multinationals seem content to leave it at that, in reality. But it is more important than ever that they go to great lengths to protect their employees in high-risk areas, for both ethical and practical reasons.

Ethically-minded employers are in a no-lose situation. If a company can demonstrate that it cares enough about its workers to take great pains to make sure they are safe, they win on a lot of fronts: worker loyalty, fewer injuries, high morale, and, ultimately, increased production, profits and shareholder value.

Taking the practical, and less emotional, point of view, the protection of workers means employers in some jurisdictions protect themselves. We are in an era in which corporate responsibility is under close scrutiny. Companies have a heavy duty to care for their workers and missteps can mean trips to the courtroom, particularly in such litigious-hungry parts of the world as the United States. In cold terms, if something goes wrong, employees who are not deemed by a judge or jury as having been properly protected can become a liability.

In Nigeria, energy companies and others know there is a human cost to operating there. Government security and private security forces have been unable to prevent the militants' attacks and completely protect employees. Employers have chosen to put people in harm's way and understand that the best security they can afford is not enough to keep their workers entirely safe.

That being the case, no one is forcing employees to accept the jobs. They understand there are risks involved and they have to share in the responsibility to remain safe. Like their employers, they base their decision on risk and return. For those who go, attractive compensation blunts the worry over risk.

Employers operating in dangerous parts of the world are in a tough spot. None wants to be seen as callous or uncaring about worker safety. At the same time, they have a responsibility to shareholders to continually increase profits. Despite their best efforts, they will continue to lose workers to violence in places like Nigeria.

So what's a company to do? It is nearly unthinkable that a chief executive officer would stand up and declare that, on moral grounds, it is more important to make sure no one is kidnapped or murdered than to compete for oil on a militant battleground. That would be worth lots of good public relations, but surely would do little for share prices.

What is left is for the company to do everything in its power to take care of those who have agreed to work in hostile areas. Train employees to avoid danger, make sure they know what they are facing, provide as much security as possible regardless of the cost and, if someone decides the risk is too great, get them out of there posthaste to a safer work environment.

No amount of precautions are likely to make places like Nigeria entirely safe. But employers committed to operating in such dangerous parts of the world owe it their workers to do everything in their power to protect them. That's necessary, whether it's driven by an ethical CEO or a desire by the legal team to stay out of the courtroom.