5 Sep 2011

Ex-pat staff at PNG's LNG Project concerned about violent attacks

2:13 pm on 5 September 2011

The head of Exxon Mobil's subsidiary, Esso Highlands Ltd, has denied claims that the company is neglecting the security of its staff in the Liquified Natural Gas Project in Papua New Guinea.

Personal accounts from the Southern Highlands, where the main gas fields of the project are based, indicate workers are dissastified with security provisions.

Johnny Blades paid the Highlands' Hela region a visit and gauged the feeling among LNG workers.

On most days of the week, Tari airport in Southern Highlands sees a busy stream of foreigners arriving to take up roles in the LNG project.

These days, there's also a steady flow of ex-pat workers leaving - some for their monthly break, but also many departing for good and relieved to be doing so.

One such worker, who wished to remain unnamed, says a recent shootout between warring tribes on the quarry site he managed was just the latest in a series of security scares in which his life has been under threat.

"Next thing you know, there's just guns going off everywhere; guys started running up into the bush around the quarry. We've asked for Exxon to provide MS (police mobile squad) security during the day there and they've refused. They've given us virtually no security. We get threats here on a daily basis. We're not fenced off. People with bush knives, you might get thirty at a time, turning up and demanding employment. We've got no security there whatsoever."

Rob, whose contract in the project's construction effort has just ended, says the recent horrific machete attack by a local man on a young Filipino worker just days into his contract at Komo has scared many staff.

The assailant was reportedly upset that the worker had a job which he felt a local person should have.

Rob says there are plenty of other similar incidents...

"The guy got hit over the head with a machete last week. Another guy got a machete shoved through the window of his car. They keep telling us that three Arabs are going to get the chop before Christmas - that's what they're saying, this is the local boys. And it doesn't matter how many times you bring it up in the meetings, about safety on site, it's just totally... "forget about it, it's not worth worrying about". They (management) are wondering why nobody wants to go back to work, I think the last percentage of turnover of ex-pats there was sixty percent. And I reckon after that incident with the boy getting the machete over the head, it'll go up a fair bit. There's nobody out there working up there who isn't looking - put it like that - it's pretty full-on."

He says that during a six-day lockdown of project staff in Komo following the attack on the Filipino, all ex-pat workers initially agreed to refuse to return to work unless security provisions changed..

"We, a lot of people, spoke to the Arabs that night and said "look, we're all sticking together on this, the whole site's together on this; we're not going back to work until security's improved". There's that many holes in the fence around the airport, the locals just cut holes in the fence and just wonder through it. There's nothing you can do about it. They're not supposed to be on the airfield but they do it anyway. And when it came to the vote the next day, the Arabs all grabbed about ten slips of paper each and started ticking them. I spoke to one of the Arabs that I know and he said, we were just told last night by our bosses "you tick for yes otherwise you'll be out of here and we'll have another load of people in here tomorrow"."

Esso's Managing Director, Peter Graham, denies that the company hasn't responded to staff security concerns

"That's news to me. There are normal lines of communication within both the contractor organisation and within our own organisation. I would think that any issues that do surface work their way up through the organisation. And certainly, as I say, when we have an incident like the one that occurred recently, we take a very serious look at what are all the factors that led to that incident, the precursors to it, and what do we need to do going forward to provide that safe and secure environment. Again, I think it's all about saturation of communications and being able to listen to what the grievances are."

Peter Graham has also defended the project's record with hiring locals, saying 1400 of the 1800-strong workforce at Komo are PNG nationals.

He says that for every operator of equipment in the field, there's a national shadow being trained to take up the job.