PLANNING FOR PERIL IN FOREIGN TRAVEL
Byline: Scott Malone
NEW YORK — Nations such as Indonesia and Pakistan, and even Madagascar, are well known to apparel-sourcing executives as major production locations for U.S. apparel brands, but they’re also familiar to those who follow foreign affairs as current hot spots of political turmoil or social unrest.
That combination gives quality-control managers and industry officials who regularly travel to overseas factories a case of the jitters.
As apparel production centers move further away from the U.S. market, it’s becoming a greater challenge to ensure that employees are safe while traveling to the developing nations where many brands do business. It’s relatively easy for a compliance officer to create a list of rules to prevent factory workers from hurting themselves — by wearing eye protection and carefully storing hazardous chemicals, for instance. Once put in place, such policies can work for years.
But a list of countries, or parts of countries, to which it’s safe or not safe for Americans to travel is prone to go out of date as soon as it’s completed, industry observers said.
“You can’t have a policy that says ‘Go here, not there,’ because one day they’re shooting there and the next it becomes Shangri-la,” said security consultant Ira Somerson. “You have to have the ability to know on a daily, or weekly, or some reasonable basis, how safe it is to travel and what the threats are. You can never take it for granted that any part of the world is safe.”
How quickly situations can change is illustrated by the current unrest in Madagascar. A close presidential election in December, in which both candidates declared themselves the winner, led to rioting in the capital city, the closing of roads to the main port and cutting off of the gas supply to most of the country. That meant apparel manufacturers who had placed spring orders in that sub-Saharan African nation, which qualifies for duty and quota-free status under the African Growth and Opportunity Act, in many cases couldn’t receive their goods on time.
The two men last week signed a deal agreeing to a recount of the ballots and, if that proved inconclusive, to stage another election. But it was not clear the deal would end the violence.
While missed deliveries can lead to lost sales, that problem pales in comparison to the potential for an employee to be injured, kidnapped or killed while traveling abroad.
Mexico in particular is known as a hotbed of kidnapping. According to press reports, more than 500 people are believed to be kidnapped there in the average year. While the typical victim is a Mexican national, there have been instances of foreign executives being held for ransom, most prominently the 1996 kidnapping of a Japanese electronics executive who was held until his firm paid a $2 million ransom.
Executives said they believed the best way to avoid that fate — and to escape being the victim of less terrifying sorts of crime — is to try hard to blend in.
“If you play the ugly tourist or visitor, walking around with a camera, bermuda shorts and a straw hat, you will be easy pickings for whoever and whatever,” said Ron Martin, compliance director at VF Corp., who regularly inspects factories operated by foreign contractors.
Somerson, who serves as president of Blue Bell, Pa.-based Loss Management Consultants, said a key element to remaining safe is a traveler’s willingness to recognize when he or she is going into unfamiliar territory.
“Your biggest problem is not the country,” when preparing a security strategy, Somerson said. “It’s the arrogance of the executive. They think they know how to travel”
One of the first things Somerson does when training someone to travel overseas is advise them to shed the symbols of wealth and power that can make travelers targets.
“You take all the garishness out of their behavior, take all the jewelry off, make them feel as un-American as they can,” he said.
Beyond obvious steps like not wearing a flashy wristwatch, Somerson cautions executives to avoid clothing that shows the logos of their companies or of other major Western businesses. Observers said the best way companies can ensure their employees’ safety while traveling abroad is to keep tabs on the goings-on in countries where they do business.
At San Francisco-based Levi Strauss & Co., a team of security staffers around the world is responsible for keeping up on conditions abroad and regularly brief traveling personnel. The security team also maintains an informal list of nations where Levi’s staff should avoid traveling unless it’s absolutely necessary to do so.
Apparel firms shifted much of their production to foreign contractors to avoid having to own lots of factories or offices overseas. The economics that drove that change makes it impractical for many companies to have staff in all the foreign nations where they buy.
Businesses can participate in the Overseas Security Advisory Council, a partnership between American businesses and the State Department dedicated to sharing information on security overseas. Executives can also monitor the State Department’s lists of travel advisories and warnings on particular foreign nations. They are available at the Web site travel.state.gov.
Security consultant Somerson added that executives whose travels take them to places that tend to arouse strong emotions can consider requesting a second passport, so they do not need to bring their entire travel history with them on every voyage abroad. Some U.S. executives have also made a point of securing passports from nations other than the U.S., in the hopes that they would be less likely to be the victim of a targeted crime with political motivations.
VF’s Martin, who travels on an English passport, said he suspects that having a passport issued by another nation may not mean all that much in a crisis situation.
“Part of the reason I kept my passport was because it was easier from a point of view of getting visas and the like,” he said. “But in this day and age, as far as Westerners are concerned, Western Europeans and Americans are tarred with the same brush.”