The new breed of social workerAugust 2014
After earning an MBA at Yale, Christine Bader spent nine years with BP as manager of policy development creating social programmes to aid workers and local residents as the energy giant built petrochemical plants and liquefied natural gas operations in remote areas of the world. In her new book, The Evolution of a Corporate Idealist: When Girl Meets Oil, Bader presents issues she and other corporate idealists confront as they work to improve business social and environmental practices. Now a lecturer and advocate, Bader says the needle has been moving incrementally, but more needs to be done.
Before BP you worked for nonprofits, what drew you to the corporate world?
After college, I served as a corps member with AmeriCorp’s City Year programme that aims to keep at risk children in school, and saw corporate sponsors donate time and materials. It was my first view of companies doing good works and made me aware of the role of business in society. While at Yale, I became intrigued with BP when CEO John Browne came to speak on greenhouse gas emissions, and shared his view that companies are not separate from the communities where they work.
During an assignment in Papua, Indonesia, you relocated 127 families. How did you approach that?
We acknowledged what we didn’t know and realized that we needed to go out and look for world-class experts for the myriad challenges we faced —in this case the World Bank’s top resettlement expert. Humility and being open to other peoples’advice served us well. We learned from horrible situations around other extractive projects that the best and most secure perimeter around a project is not a big fence, but a community that is involved and has a vested interest in stability. The best way to ensure smooth operations is to engage the local community and try to find that sweet spot between the interests of business and the interests of the community.
At one point one resident lobbied to use brick in the new houses, believing it was what all modern societies had —but not a good material for that climate because it retains heat. The World Bank expert admitted we were in a bind: If we’re truly listening to their desires, what should we do if the choice they desire is a bad one? None-the-less we facilitated three more months of consultations about the availability and suitability of brick, and after three months had consensus to go back to wood.
You also were involved in developing support programmes for a joint venture petrochemical plant in China that brought 15,000 migrant workers into a village of 30,000. Tell us about that.
One of the biggest challenges on that project was ensuring that the temporary dormitories for those migrant workers met international standards for health and safety, like having smoke detectors and limiting the number of people in a room. Beyond the dormitories, the influx of so many workers could put strain on the town’s water supply and hospitals, spawn brothels and cause food prices to soar, all of which could make local residents and party officials resent the joint venture.
You mention a particularly startling revelation with your partner Sinopec, about mortality expectations during construction. Can you elaborate?
My first week in China, I learned that our partner company had projected eight worker deaths, based on past experience with projects like ours. I was horrified! We made it clear that the target was zero — and managed to achieve zero fatalities on-site during the construction period. Migrant workers are away from their families and want to maximize earnings. But long hours working with heavy construction equipment can lead to unsafe conditions.
You were working with the UN on development of the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights document when BP’s Deepwater Horizon explosion happened. Still, how did it impact you?
The BP that emerged in the various hearings and investigations in the months that followed that tragedy is what compelled me to write this book. It didn’t reflect the company I thought I knew so well — which in my experience went above and beyond what was required by law anywhere to protect people and the environment — but rather was projected as reckless and callous. I started speaking with others doing comparable work in other companies, and realized we face so many common challenges. I wanted to shine a light on the people deep inside companies, and ask why we fail and what we need to succeed.
What have you learned?
We are making progress, but still have a long way to go. The Business & Human Rights Resource Centre keeps a running list on companies with a human rights policy statement: It is still fewer than 400. Walmart alone has 100,000 suppliers!
One challenge with this kind of work is that no one gets rewarded when something doesn’t happen, and our success often means the absence of bad things.
Those of us who care about ethics and corporate responsibility can get preachy; but all of my interviewees agreed that evangelizing to our colleagues is not helpful. Figuring out how our work supports theirs is.
Christine Bader spoke to Laura Klepacki