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Adventurers who took the plunge

INTERNATIONAL - Managing a project can cause headaches at the best of times but what happens when deliveries have to get to Borneo rather than Burnley? Joanna Booth asked six expats about their lives abroad

THEY ARE the unsung heroes of overseas projects.

The ones at the end of a crackling phone line trying to negotiate moving supplies across hostile borders.They soldier on through malaria and typhoid scares, through scorching temperatures and times when the email system breaks down.

Construction has always been an itinerant profession but some people are prepared to travel to the ends of the earth to see a project to its conclusion, navigating a project through cultural and linguistic misunderstandings and taking extraordinary measures to ward off creeping homesickness.

We spoke to six veterans of international contracting to ask them what life was like on their far-flung projects and they all agreed that the pros far outweigh the cons.

As well as the chance to live and work in exotic locations, contractors and consultants have had the opportunity to get involved with landmark schemes with huge social and political implications.

But, with the normal level of back-up from head office unavailable, patience, flexibility, resourcefulness and a sense of humour seem to be the traits necessary to survive the day-to-day melee on site.

Here is how they see their jobs.

Borneo

Tanya Jeffrey was Turner and Townsend's project manager on a silicon wafer fabrication plant in Sarawak on the island of Borneo in Malaysia until its completion last year, when she moved to South Africa.

'The equatorial climate and dense vegetation of Borneo aren't really user-friendly. Economic development has stumbled previously because of the difficulties of running a high-tech business there. Infrastructure had to be in place to make the site accessible before work could start.

'We had to improve the local road system to meet insurance criteria for transporting expensive, vibrationsensitive equipment overland from the airport to the site.We also liaised with airport authorities and improved the automatic landing system to allow Boeing 747 cargo planes to land in Kuching.No aircraft that size had landed there before.

'Sarawak has a multitude of ethnic groups, so there were cultural diversity, local customs and distinct protocols to contend with.We had to negotiate through the language barrier, including co-ordinating with a German main contractor.'

Ghana

Liam McVeigh is presently Taylor Woodrow's project manager on a temple complex for LDS Church in Accra, Ghana.

He has worked abroad since 1990 in Malaysia, Russia and France.

'Safety culture and the skills base in general are improving quickly.We use videos and pictures in training so it is relevant regardless of language or literacy skills.There is a strong desire to improve safety among the workforce and unions, so initiatives are embraced enthusiastically.

'While Ghana has civil legislation similar to the UK, there are several areas where traditional tribal ownership of land takes precedence. Establishing definitive ownership can be complex, especially if challenges are raised once a project is under way.

'The subcontract market is still evolving so we directly employ most of the workers on our sites and provide and maintain virtually all our plant.This increases the administration but gives site management direct control, making it easier to achieve targets. Listening to colleagues in the UK describing some of the problems they have with subbies and plant hire companies, I am glad to be working where I am.

'Another positive difference is that the business culture is genuinely not adversarial nor litigious.A word you hear very often is 'Akuaba', which means welcome.

It's a friendly, hospitable country and a safe place to live.

'It's a shame that civil unrest in neighbouring countries often creates an impression that all of West Africa is unstable and hostile.This is definitely not the case in Ghana.'

Taiwan

Lee Taylor works for Barclay Mowlem as a project manager on the £72 million Taiwan High Speed Rail project. Since leaving the UK in 2000 he has worked in Australia, Hong Kong and Thailand.

'The project is very technically challenging.We're constructing 34 km of concrete slab track but there are three different types - low vibration, embedded and Rheda 2000.They involve detailed forms of construction and have particularly high track and welding tolerances.

'Delivery of materials is also an issue - we have to get 33 m-long turnout components, concrete, blocks and fastenings into the tunnel from one point of entry.The local labour requires really close supervision to achieve the quality and safety standards that our client demands. But we have completed more than a million man-hours with no time lost to injury.

'It's very hot and humid in summer and there are earthquakes and typhoons. But the job is a greenfield site so we don't have to go through typical rail shutdown work - Sundays, holidays, nights and so on.Generally in Asia you work six days a week and the hours are pretty similar to the UK.

'It's a great lifestyle but I do miss being able to go out and watch some sport.'

Oman

Simon Buttery is Carillion Alawi's project director on the Barr Al Jissah resort in Oman, a £105 million hotel complex.This is his first overseas posting.

'Enforcing UK health and safety standards has been a challenge, especially with local specialist contractors.

In Oman temperatures soar to 50 deg C in mid-summer, making the normal construction process impossible.

'Ensuring adequate fresh drinking water and shade for over 2,500 workers has been of paramount importance. Concrete is poured out of hours and shuttering must be cooled with water prior to placement - not something I ever came across in the UK.

Oman has stringent environmental regulations, often exceeding those in the EU.

The site is fronted by 600 m of beach, where two species of endangered turtle nest.

All our work is carried out in such a way as to prevent our disturbing them. Light break-outs at night must be avoided at all costs, or the hatchlings head for the site, rather than using the moon to navigate towards the sea.

'There are 300 types of coral in the area and, as part of the environmental plan, we have planted corals on large precast concrete structures to encourage new growth.

'Site hours are long - the working week starts at 7 am on Saturday morning and finishes at 6.30 pm on Thursday evening. Friday is normally spent asleep on the beach.

'The food on site is prepared to suit the tastes of our workforce, the majority of whom are from India.We have trained our office junior in the art of making toasted sandwiches but it hasn't been a complete success.'

China

Mike Bradley, of Atkins, has been a consultant site architect in China's Shanghai province for six months.The Thames New Town is being built to serve new developments at Songjiang University.

'Procurement techniques aren't the same as in the UK. Client groups have preferred suppliers, who sometimes aren't in line with our specifications or expectations. Chinese contractors give their instructions verbally - most don't have a fax machine on site, nor agendas nor minutes for meetings.

'Initially I found it very difficult to track and shut down site issues when all communication was verbal.We tried to coerce the contracting teams into adopting an administration system more like the ones used here, but to be honest, we've had mixed results. Some teams adapted very quickly, some tried and found it too onerous and some, either through inability or unwillingness, haven't taken any of it on board.

'Local design institutes provide us with the relevant legal stamps on drawings and specifications but they tend to interpret designs in their own way, which can cause noncompliance issues.These have to be ironed out post-tender as they find their way directly to site.'

Vietnam

Neil Harvey works for Hyder Consulting and is currently based in Vietnam on the 20storey Hanoi Petroleum Trading Centre.He has worked abroad for 15 years - in Hong Kong, Malaysia, Korea, Singapore, Taiwan and Thailand.

'Language is a difficulty.The standard of English is not high but is improving dramatically. I plan to learn Vietnamese but never get round to it.Translation of documents is a big issue, especially as the Hyder Vietnam office has more than trebled in size in the past six months.The Vietnamese speak a number of foreign languages fluently but they tend to be Eastern European, as this is where many have studied and worked.

'The level of bureaucracy here is different from other countries.The approval process from the Architectural Department and other local authority bodies can be challenging. But my colleagues here have a great attitude.

'They're determined to work hard and the project has given some of them the opportunity to go overseas - for some this is their first time out of Vietnam.They've given me support as a friend and a boss and excellent advice on cultural nuances.

'After a bout of typhoid early in my stay I do a lot of my own cooking. I have two homes, one in Hong Kong and one in Glasgow, so I'm missing good Dim Sum and Irn Bru!'