Are your employees protected during travel?

Chitra Narayanan | Updated on October 24, 2019

Bombings, protests, coups, disease outbreaks are all making business movement riskier

Since June this year, Hong Kong has been the scene of protests over a contentious extradition Bill, often escalating into violent confrontations. Several Indian corporate travellers to the bustling business town found themselves stranded as airlines cancelled flights.

In April, on Easter day, it was Colombo in Sri Lanka, where a series of terrorist bombings created an emergency situation and many a business traveller had to be evacuated hurriedly.

This August, a large IT corporation had to call emergency relief firm International SOS (intl SOS) to pull out its executives from flood affected parts of Andhra Pradesh. Last year, the Nipah virus outbreak in Kerala led to several companies putting out travel advisories on their internal communication boards, warning employees against visiting the State.

Terrorist attacks, coups, disease outbreaks, floods and earthquakes are all increasing the risk of travel. Add to that geopolitical risks. Venezuela is on the boil currently, for instance, and there are ONGC employees deployed there.

At the same time, business travel is growing exponentially, especially in India. A recent KPMG-FCM Travel Solutions report estimates that business travel in India will touch spends of $46 billion in 2019 and is growing at 11.5 per cent annually.


Preventive policies

Even as their executives criss-cross the country and jet-set the world for business, the question is: are companies protecting them against growing risks?

The good news is that several corporates are putting in place policies to prevent any mishap in case of contingencies.

Consulting firm PwC, for instance, has a global tie-up with an agency that provides it with 24/7 support and assistance for its travellers, including evacuation and repatriation.

“As a responsible organisation, the safety and security of our people at all times is most important and we have taken proactive measures towards this. While organisations cannot stop incidents from taking place, it is important to have robust policies that mitigate risks that may arise from work-related travel,” says Satyavati Berera, COO, PwC India.

PwC employees get travel advisories warning them of geopolitical risks. Also, while they are travelling, a travel tracker is activated which has their emergency contact numbers.

“Eighty per cent of Fortune 500 companies are our clients,” says geopolitical and security expert, Udit Mehta, who serves as the Executive Vice-President of International SOS, the medical and security services company.

“Globally, many countries have constitutionalised duty of care which makes it necessary for companies to take care of their employees,” he says.

“However, this is not institutionalised in India,” adds Mehta, though, hearteningly, several private as well as public sector companies in India have a care framework for their employees for such situations. This is especially true of companies that work in oil and gas sector, mining, etc.

Toughest evacuations

Ask Mehta which are the toughest evacuations he has managed and he says it was the Ebola virus outbreak in Liberia. Around 130 Indian employees — mainly from a multinational steel manufacturing corporation — were stuck in the country and what made repatriation difficult was that every country placed an embargo on flights from Liberia landing on their soil due to fear of contamination. “The problem was we had to refuel the aircraft somewhere and no country was giving us permission,” recalls Mehta. Finally, South Africa allowed.

According to Mehta, it’s easier for a neutral agency to evacuate people during emergencies in certain countries than for government outfits because of diplomatic issues. “Our white flag makes a difference,” he says.

Mumbai-based Mehta was leader of Intl SOS’s Incident Management Team that reached Colombo in less than four hours of the initial explosions that rocked the Sri Lankan capital on Easter Sunday this year.

In India, Intl SOS has 300 employees, spread across its Mumbai, Bengaluru and Delhi offices and field units in remote North Eastern outposts. The company, started by a French doctor for evacuations during medical emergencies, interestingly, has more work related to travel and security situations now.

However, when together with IPSOS Mori, Intl SOS conducted a survey on travel risk perceptions among companies, it found that travel policies are not keeping in tune with the needs of a modern workforce.

New threats

The survey found that few companies are aware of the travel risks faced by LGBT employees, especially in the Middle East countries. Millennial travellers, who prefer shared economy services like cab aggregators or homestays over conventional hotels and car rentals, are adding to the cyber security risk element. Only a third of organisations surveyed in the IPSOS Mori poll covered cyber security in their travel policy.

Barely 26 per cent had extra security considerations woven in for female travellers.

Incidentally, the KPMG-FCM report has highlighted that 25 per cent of business travellers in India are women, and how their security needs are higher.

“The dynamics of modern travel are changing, but people’s perceptions have not changed much,” says Udit Mehta.

Interestingly, he points out that when you quiz companies on travel risk threats, terrorism figures prominently. And yet, the reality is that terrorism incidents are minuscule while road accidents constitute the biggest risk!

Published on October 24, 2019

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