Tuesday, August 21, 2012

tuesdays in turkmenistan: red stamps

Sadly, the red stamps I am referred to are not special edition red postage stamps bearing the Coca-Cola logo. These are of the variety that go in your passport as a warning (the first time) and a deportation (the second time). While I myself have not "earned" one of these illustrious stamps, a colleague recently did due to a simple mix-up of how long he would be on one of the offshore rigs. He's hardly the first person to receive such a warning stamp and I doubt he will be the last.

The rules here are quite peculiar. That is my word for many things here: peculiar. That, and the phrase "because Turkmenistan" are the best way to easily express the, well, peculiarity of the situation. The rules and procedures are ever-shifting, questionably published, and can be potentially "finessed" in times of need. Here, the catch is that the location of all international employees needs to be registered each day. Well, it needs to be updated if any changes are made meaning if you go to the rig or a different city for a night, then your registration needs to be updated with the immigration office. This makes sense to a point. We're all guests here and the government has an interest in knowing what foreigners are doing. (Hint: not fomenting revolution). If I go to Ashgabat for a trip to see clients, that move needs to be registered. In theory, the government knows where I sleep every night. In practice, I am not sure what they do with this information or if anyone really cares. However, we are warned not to fool around, both in a literal and metaphorical sense. A few years back, one employee was deported due to spending the night outside the camp and thus not where he was registered.

For the most part, my own situation is straightforward compared to the field employees. I am in the base. Occasionally, I am in Ashgabat. Then I leave. Or I arrive. It's not more exciting or compelling. For the field employees, they have to deal with a limiting factor of location registration. See, I am registered in Balkanabat since I am here most of the time. If I go somewhere else in the country, I cannot spend more than 15 days away from Balkanabat before either returning for at least 2-3 days or leaving the country. For the field guys (and gals), this can be a problem. They need to be registered wherever they work the most. In particular, the ones who spend significant time offshore, they need to be registered at the relevant port the client is based from. However, if they go to a different client's rig or are in Balkanabat for an extended period, then they either need to have their registration changed (which is a hassle) or need to leave and spend a token 2-3 days in their normal registration location city (which is also a hassle). From a business perspective, the whole system is quite maddeningly frustrating. However, from a local perspective, it sort of makes sense. But only sort of.

These registration rules, and many others like how long and difficult the LOI/visa process takes, are all part of a process designed to make it harder to have expatriate workers. The reasoning is obviously that fewer positions filled by expats means more jobs for locals. This sounds good on paper and is arguably correct in many countries. Where this line of reasoning hits a bump is with qualified workers. This is not just about the oilfield. This is about any industry that relies on highly educated, trained, and/or specialized skill sets. Let's say a company wants to bring in an offshore rig and drill a well. At any given moment, there are probably about 100 people on an offshore rig. If you figure almost all of them have a back-to-back (since it is very rare to have someone stationed full time on a rig for 365 days a year), then you arguably need 200 people for operations. Then there is shore support, office-based staff, managers, etc. Let's somewhat arbitrarily say that's another 100 people. (Just humor me on the numbers. They are obviously not accurate, but are for ballparking purposes.) These people don't all work for the operator or the rig company of course, but belong to the various service companies that have been contracted for the work. Now I need 300 people spread out amongst many companies to drill a well, though they will presumably drill several wells. Are there 300 qualified local people available within the country right now? For many of the positions, yes. However, for certain specialized positions, probably not. Now we have this dilemma of do we stop all operations and thus associated employment due to a handful of people who are missing? Or do we bring in the few people we need to finish off the job? The latter wins out more often than not, but the hoops jumped through during that process are a reminder that we need to be building up and training as much local staff as possible.

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