Philippines, Japan reassess Algeria labor risks

Posted at 02/01/13 7:49 PM

TOKYO/MANILA - This elderly lady writing her condolences was one of more than 8,000 others to join the national outpouring of grief for the victims of Japan's worst militant attack on Japanese citizens overseas since the September 11th attacks on the U.S. in 2001.

Al Qaeda-linked fighters seized an In Amenas gas complex in Algeria and took workers hostage. A total of 38 hostages spanning eight nationalities died in the ensuing siege. Japan suffered the highest number of casualties at 10.

The victims were from Japanese engineering firm JGC Corporation which has been operating overseas for more than half a century. This was the firm's first and biggest incident involving an overseas armed group which led to casualties.

"In the wake of this incident JGC has now focused its sights on solving the question of how we can both continue to do what we are so proud of, the business of engineering, while also ensuring the safety of our employees," said JGC President Koichi Kawana at a news conference on the day the remaining seven Japanese survivors returned home.

The high number of Japanese casualties and media reports of bombs strapped to some of the victims shocked the nation.

Japanese companies are scrambling to reassess their crisis management procedures.

Local media had criticized Japan's leadership for lacking the ability to collect intelligence.

"I have asked that under the leadership of the Chief Cabinet Secretary (Yoshihiko Suga), we will work together to quickly come up with measures that will protect our nationals working in companies on the front-line overseas," Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said.

Kroll Advisory Solutions, senior managing director Tadashi Kageyama said there was complacency among companies.

"I think one of the reasons is that Japan has become complacent with peace. I really think there was a misplaced feeling of safety where the companies thought 'We'll be all right' was prevalent ," said Kroll Advisory Solutions, senior managing director Tadashi Kageyama.

Japanese companies generally spend less than 10 percent than their western counter-parts on security intelligence. This includes measures like conducting employee background checks, compensating local employees to keep them from defecting to the side of armed-groups.

Japanese corporates also have a tendency to think of security as just armed guards, fences and alarms, Kageyama said, who has 15 years experience advising Japanese companies.

Competition with Korean and Chinese firms has become fiercer leading to shrinking security budgets, adds Kageyama.

"What has made the situation more difficult is that global competition has become fiercer and the budget has shrunk and is now tight. So naturally, costs which affect the company's bottom line have to come down and companies will look at crisis management and security costs as targets for reduction," he said.

The Japanese public is also having a rethink.

"We really have to be more aware and open our eyes to these matters. I think this serves as a good lesson. I hope the victims have not died in vain and that we can take action," said Yoshiaki Oishi who was at JGC's headquarters to present flowers.

Next to Japan, the Philippines suffered the next highest number of casualties in the Algeria attack, with eight Filipino workers killed. Their remains have just arrived home this week, delayed by a lengthy identification procedure. One further Filipino working at the gas plant is still missing.

The Philippines' Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (OWWA) said the government was demanding tougher security measures from companies who deploy Filipinos to hostile countries.

"So they ask the company to provide an emergency plan, a security or crisis management plan, and of course they also require higher insurance coverage for the workers who work in those areas," the Overseas Workers Welfare Administrator Carmelita Dimzon said.

Many of the foreign workers who survived the attack on the gas plant have said they had no wish to venture back but the lure of high wages for such workers in the harsh desert conditions will remain a powerful lure.