Global workers – Total Group’s expatriate management


5 July 2016


Effective expatriate management is a cornerstone of the globalised economy, with international businesses operating all over the world. This is particularly so for upstream oil and gas operators that search for new hydrocarbon reserves in unconventional and hostile environments, while trying to keep their employees committed, healthy and safe. Jean-Remi Bur, Total Group’s head of employee benefits, employer liabilities and international mobility, tells Finance Director Europe about the challenges of managing thousands of expats.


Finance Director Europe: Could you please describe a typical Total expatriate?

Jean-Remi Bur: The typical profile is male, even though we try to diversify by offering the same career paths to a female workforce, but normally they're males in their forties. They fall into two camps. Firstly, there are the expert technicians, the engineers. When we cannot find expertise in the emerging countries where we are setting up operations, we train them in France and assign them to these new countries.

The second category is the people in the finance and management functions. The need for expatriates is based on the business's needs. When Total is settling upstream operations in Angola, Uganda, or in countries in which there is no experience of oil and gas production, it has to send its own resources, with the blessing of the local government because they expect the company to produce or exploit the deposit and train their people. So it's a win-win situation where Total develops its business in new countries but also trains local staff, passing on its knowledge.

Total has various socially conscious programmes in favour of local communities, including promoting medical services or donating solar lamps to countries where there is no electricity. So, we have these kinds of programmes, which we call local content, to make sure we are accepted as a respectful company conducting business in these parts of the world.

Are there any particular markets that the company sends expatriates to most often?

In terms of the upstream exploration and production business lines, we assign people to Africa, the Middle East, the North Sea - the legacy oil and gas producing countries and regions. But we are also moving into new countries in Latin America.

For the downstream side of the business, we send people everywhere in the world, as we are trying to gain market share and develop the business.

We currently have 4,700 expatriates working abroad, 3,000 of whom are French nationals, and the rest is made up of other nationalities. That number is remaining stable currently, especially considering the economic downturn we are facing. So, in the future, we might repatriate some of them, but we need their expertise.

What are the main challenges that you face when sending your employees abroad?

The two new topics nowadays are security and compliance. Security is really an issue because we do run our business in countries where, even if we are prepared through training, or the project has been running for years, people are sometimes afraid for themselves and their families, which is absolutely normal. They are expecting the company to show evidence of the security measures in place and how they, and it, will cope in cases of crisis. Total is forging its own expertise while closely partnering with governments, especially France, to solve these types of issues.

The other challenge is compliance, especially in the tax and immigration arenas. Compliance issues are not new, but they're increasingly becoming a concern for the employer and the employee. As packages are becoming more complex and cooperation between administrations deeper, we have to find a solution by providing tax advice before, during and at the end of the assignment.

Visa and immigration can be a big problem. We may select an employee, design a package for them and then they are ready to move with their family. It can, however, take six weeks to three months to get the visa and proper documentation to allow the family to move abroad. So, the company has to find an interim solution or it has to find ways of getting things done locally. As for the TCN assigned in France, we have our own experts in-house, that rely on the French consultates to get things done. We also try - by working with other big corporations - to strengthen relationships with the experts in the administration. They are the ones who initiate the rules and regulations, but we try to bring in our own suggestions to ease the process.

Have you seen a shift in employees' expectations of the types of benefits they are offered?

The time when employees were ready to move because the assignment was really important to them is behind us. Employees, nowadays, integrate the assignment into their career; they are expecting something from it. What makes a difference compared with the past ten years is how the company copes with a dual career - the job of the employee's spouse or partner, the definition of those terms having also changed to include same-sex relationships. for example. There is the need to balance gender equality, data protection, immigration and compliance with local rules.

Therefore, we do find solutions in the marketplace. A common solution is that we may find opportunities to help spouses or partners through our peers, through other corporations, do some speed dating with recruiters or other providers, which will help to find a suitable occupation for the spouse. In some of the emerging countries, sometimes there is no right or no possibility for the spouse to work professionally, but we do try to find an occupation.

How do you see the expatriate management space evolving in the future?

There won't be quick turnaround. The package's elements have their own sensitivities. We try to reduce costs or offer a more effective package.

There won't be tremendous changes in the years to come, but the need to ensure and balance the assignment's output with the cost to the business is tough because of the economic downturn in the oil and gas industry. We try to make the best of our resources. It is part of our way of doing things; we want to know how to be more effective in the expatriation world.

Digital technology will help current processes. There are more web-based solutions, such as software as a service. We have started to look into such solutions for the sake of our employees. We try to assess their longevity. We will only pay for something that is sustainable and will bring value to the company.

Hear more from Jean-Remi Bur on the FDE TV YouTube channel.