Lucrative contracts overseas are a draw for UK firms. But, as the recent kidnappings in Yemen show, staff security can be threatened when a work spot becomes a trouble spot.
The scene is the £230m Katse dam in Lesotho, a tiny, mountainous kingdom surrounded by South Africa. Troops from its neighbour have arrived to restore order after an anti-government uprising. The Katse army base, close to the 1000-strong encampment around the dam construction site, is a rebel stronghold. A battle ensues; insurgents and civilians are killed.

It happened last September: a story that failed to make much television impact and soon faded from the foreign pages of the newspapers. But staff at the headquarters of contractor Kier were devouring every news report and telephoning the British High Commission every day, because three of their colleagues were on the construction team completing the dam.

The Katse story has echoes of recent events in Yemen, Sierra Leone and Indonesia. In each case, countries stable enough to offer lucrative contracts to UK construction firms were suddenly in violent upheaval. No construction employer would risk the lives of staff by sending them to Algeria or Chechnya, but no company can predict when tension in Pakistan or Russia will turn into violence.

The three Kier engineers came through their ordeal unscathed, and, although they are still in Lesotho, they are due to return to the UK in three months. Their story illustrates the risks that dozens of construction companies and thousands of staff face every day. The danger comes not just from political or military action but also from kidnap, extortion and violent crime.

So, how can construction companies minimise the risks? Employers such as Kier, Currie & Brown, Mott MacDonald and WSP have decades of overseas experience and claim that they rely on this rather than on security consultants or insurance policies. Their record of weighing up a country's security risks against its commercial future has been fairly successful – the map opposite shows more near misses than tragedies.

As security consultant Control Risks Group points out, it is not always as simple as heeding Foreign Office advice. "If you've got a contract, it's not so easy to send everybody home," says spokesman Michael Barron. "And if you flee and a competitor stays, maybe they'll be seen as more reliable." And, as was the case with Kier on a remote site in land-locked Lesotho, British High Commission advice to evacuate is not always practical.

Since the events in Yemen and Chechnya, kidnapping has become the greatest concern for companies working overseas. There were 784 abductions last year, according to insurance industry figures. Halcrow Group is just one UK consultant that has changed its business plans because of the Yemeni kidnappings. "We would still like to be in Yemen because we think the prospects are quite good, but it's just not fair to staff to go against Foreign Office advice," says resources director Michael Starr.

Industry personnel directors recently met to discuss the kidnap and ransom insurance available on the market. Broker Crawley Warren said that about 5000 of these policies are underwritten at Lloyd's. Premiums range from £1000 to several hundred thousand pounds in high-risk areas. Each broker has links to a security consultant, which steps in with negotiating advice in the event of "an insured incident". Julian Armitage, Kier International's personnel manager, said that those present at the meeting found the premiums prohibitively expensive and no buyers were found. However, it is a condition of having a policy that the policy-holder should not disclose its existence for fear of heightening the kidnap risk. It is, therefore, highly unlikely that any construction firm would tell Building it has one.

Most construction employers also take the view that hiring a security consultant is tantamount to advertising your concerns. "Sometimes people say they'd like to be our advisers, but we wonder if that's not attracting attention," says Peter Lee, international director of Mott MacDonald. Only one firm contacted for this article admitted that it had taken "general advice on kidnap risk" from a security consultant. Yet, Control Risks Group asserts that construction is actually very much a part of its business.

Although employers will not admit that calling in the experts is the answer, they do emphasise information and preparation. The Foreign Office and its web site,, are the first port of call; security information logged there can signpost problems. WS Atkins also uses briefing packs provided by the Centre for International Briefing. The Farnham-based centre runs regular courses covering overseas security, customs and business practice.

Currie & Brown senior partner Doug Leedham underlines the importance of having a contingency plan, complete with emergency contact phone numbers and plane tickets. Here, a client's ability to pull strings can mean the difference between taking a job abroad and staying put.

The experts say that resisting the urge to publicise the company's work is vital to any security or anti-kidnap plan. In African countries, that could mean living and working in a guarded expatriate complex. But, in Russia, a shabby office and unremarkable housing is considered safer than a city-centre headquarters or a high-security expatriate village.

Consulting engineer Waterman has acted accordingly. Its 30-strong Moscow office is housed in a Russian design institute, which is itself surrounded by other low-key buildings. Drivers are hired through local recommendation and staff live in Russian apartments that are rented without the services of accommodation agencies. "We took a conscious decision to be in a Russian cocoon," says director Hugh Docherty. "We've never gone in and said, 'We're from the West'." The same arguments apply to cars, as Gardiner & Theobald discovered when it first worked in Russia. "Once, the client picked us up at the airport in what looked like a 25-year-old Lada, completely falling to pieces," recalls partner Keith Rogers. "But we realised that if you're in a nice shiny Volvo, you're a potential target. If you're working with clients that look out for you like that, then you're on the right track." Another key piece of advice is never to kick against "the local way" of doing things, even if it means that expatriate staff feel suffocated by security. "Nearly all of our staff overseas have night guards. In places like India or Bangladesh, it's part of the local economy – if you send them away, the same people are likely to come back and steal a few bits and pieces as a warning," says WSP director Andrew Tetley.

In the lawless, north-west Pakistani province of Baluchistan, the local way includes armed official escorts for any engineer travelling up country. "Staff have said that they don't like accepting the guards the government gives us, " says Lee of Mott MacDonald. "But if the government is offering protection, you have to accept it. If you don't, you're definitely on your own." Security and even kidnap risks are unlikely to deter the industry from working in the world's danger zones – after all, new business will usually follow any upheaval. But most firms have plans in place, and there are always the shadowy security advisers in the background.

Survival tips in danger areas

A former army officer-turned-security adviser, who asked not to be identified, has this advice for expatriates.
  • Alarms, locks and security in your home should be of a higher standard than is usual in the UK. Take care not to position the telephone next to the window – the last thing you want when calling for help is to make yourself a target.
  • Carry a rape alarm or similar device, so you can attract attention if attacked.
  • Always use a locally bought car with local number plates, so you are as inconspicuous as possible. Check that it has central locking. Lock yourself in on journeys. Try to vary your routes as much as possible.
  • If a trip outside the town or your main base is necessary, always travel in a convoy of at least two vehicles. And try not to advertise the fact that you are going.
  • In some countries, you are likely to encounter unofficial roadblocks manned by police or soldiers using you to boost their income. Carry cigarettes or low-denomination dollar bills to make the experience as painless as possible.
  • A first-aid kit should contain more than Savlon and sticking plasters. Remember to include sterile needles and saline drips.
  • Always have a spare can of petrol, a large bottle of water and basic spare parts in your car.
  • Buy an open return air ticket so that you can turn up at the airport and get on a flight. Memorise two or three routes to the airport in case of rioting or road blocks.

An offer you can’t refuse

Colombia’s kidnap rate, the highest in the world, makes the country in general and construction in particular a no-go industry for foreigners. Foreign nationals may be kidnapped by drug barons for use as a political negotiating tool, by left-wing guerrillas for profile and fund-raising, or by opportunistic bandits keen to make a fast buck. The cities of Medellin and Cali, hubs of Colombia’s multibillion-dollar drug-trafficking industry, saw a construction boom in the 1980s and early 1990s, as local drug barons rushed to launder their narco-dollars in property. However, most of the cranes on the Medellin and Cali skylines belong to Mafia-owned construction companies. Although such firms are guaranteed work, employees might find that the final contracts are on their lives. Colombia’s “most wanted” would not hesitate to execute the construction workers who build their high-security homes. The most notorious construction project was the conversion of a mountainside drugs-rehab unit above Medellin La Catedral to a luxurious prison, complete with suites, a games room, a bar-disco and a floodlit football pitch. Hannah Baldock

World danger zones

Colombia There were 516 confirmed cases of kidnap in 1998, the highest in the world, according to the Hiscox group of Lloyd’s underwriters. The average length of a kidnap is seven to nine months. Foreign Office verdict: There is a risk of being caught up in paramilitary attacks or opportunist kidnappings. Sierra Leone In this West African country, which is racked by civil war, the only Westerners left are journalists and aid-workers. But engineers from WSP were working there as recently as 18 months ago. Foreign Office verdict: We advise against all travel. British nationals are advised to leave immediately. Angola A Currie & Brown staffer has been working in Angola for the past four years. However, the company has decided that his trip will be the last. Foreign Office verdict: Armed hold-ups are common. Guerrilla attacks are frequent and may occur at any time. Sudan WSP is active in Sudan, but has not experienced any trouble. Mott MacDonald works there occasionally but not at present. Foreign Office verdict: We advise against all travel. British nationals are advised to leave unless they have a compelling reason to remain. Lesotho Tension continues in Lesotho after September’s violence. WSP and Kier are still working there. Foreign Office verdict: The situation is improving but the mountainous hinterland is less secure. Russia An employee of one construction consultant walked alone from his hotel to a restaurant one evening. He was robbed at gunpoint. Foreign Office verdict: Be vigilant and dress down. Do not accept food or drink from strangers as they may be drugged. Yemen British oil-worker John Brooke was kidnapped and released last month; a British couple was released last week. Consulting engineer Halcrow has pulled out its staff. Foreign Office verdict: We believe there is an increased risk to British interests from terrorism. Indonesia Gardiner & Theobald and Mott MacDonald were among the construction firms that stayed throughout last year’s crisis. Foreign Office verdict: There is a risk that any large demonstration could turn violent. Cambodia Eighteen months ago, an election led to riots between rival factions. Currie & Brown staff working on an airport fled the country. Foreign Office verdict: Visitors should be vigilant and aware of the risk of kidnapping. Pakistan Most men in high-tension northern Pakistan carry guns. Westerners are not generally seen as targets. Foreign Office verdict: Incidents of armed robbery and kidnapping continue to occur throughout the country.