Expat staff often benefit from better pay, accommodation, travel and security arrangements than their African peers. It’s time that employees were treated more equally.
On 7 November, a convoy transporting workers for Canadian goldminer Semafo was ambushed in eastern Burkina Faso, killing 39 workers. The brutal assault on the convoy, in which unknown attackers blew up an armoured escort vehicle before spraying workers with bullets, is a shocking wake-up call in a country increasingly threatened by Islamist violence.
But according to a report from Reuters, the possibility of a deadly assault had been predicted months before by concerned employees. In August 2018, three workers were killed in attacks, necessitating a military escort. Local workers from Accra-based contractor African Mining Services had reportedly pleaded with their management in June to fly them to the site – a privilege afforded to expat workers – rather than being driven through an area fast gaining a reputation for insecurity and banditry.
Responding to questions from Reuters, the Australian parent company of African Mining Services, Perenti, argued that intelligence had indicated that workers would not be targeted, that security was proportionate to the threat level and that the scale of the attack and its focus were unprecedented.
In a statement, Perenti said:
“The convoy was under armed escort from the Burkina Faso military when it was attacked. This level of security had been considered commensurate with the level of threat identified from intelligence sources available, including from globally recognised security providers at that time.
“In addition to this, in coordination with the client, we had augmented the military controls. We had a number of measures in place to reduce the risk to our people.”
Perenti also said that it had provided body armour to staff.
Whether or not the firms in question could have done more to protect local workers, the tragedy highlights a continent-wide disconnect between multinationals’ treatment of local workers and the often-pampered lifestyle of an expat clique. In too many multinationals, particularly in the resources sector, local African staff still assume a disproportionate share of low-paid, low-skilled, insecure and sometimes dangerous jobs, while expat peers benefit from improved pay, accommodation, travel and security arrangements.
Things are gradually changing. Many multinationals based on the continent make a virtue of promoting and nurturing local talent, rightfully seeing the value to their business of developing in-country expertise and connections.
Of course, talent in emerging economies can be scarce, expensive, and hard to retain. And in frontier markets where there are few competitors offering jobs, multinationals can become complacent and indifferent towards the experiences and needs of local staff. But as Africa continues to emerge economically, multinationals will increasingly come under pressure from local firms promising better terms and closer relations with their staff. In an interconnected world defined by mobility, Africans have fewer incentives to take second-rate jobs with distant multinationals that prioritise the needs of expats. According to consultancy McKinsey, a globally consistent set of employee principles, responsive to local needs, should apply to multinationals.
“In any market, the basic ingredients of a strong employer brand will be competitive compensation; attractive working conditions; managers who develop, engage, and support their staff; and good communication.”
Many multinationals take significant risks to invest in African frontier markets, creating millions of much-needed jobs, contributing billions in tax revenues and boosting economic growth. But when local staff are neglected, everyone ends up poorer.