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“The Qatalum project is not only a giant construction project, but also a giant cultural project,” says Tom Røtjer, Executive Vice President and head of Hydro’s projects unit.

“In addition to all the technical challenges of such a megaproject, we must also do our best to ensure that every culture, every faith and everyone from top to bottom feel respected. Failing this, we would fail in Qatalum.”

Qatalum is a joint venture company equally owned by Qatar Petroleum and Hydro, a solid match between an established force within the oil and gas sector in the Middle East and a global leader in the aluminium industry. The task that the two partners have set themselves is no less than building the biggest-ever aluminium plant constructed in one step.

The Qatalum smelter will be up and running at full capacity sometime during 2010 after production start-up around year-end 2009. Its two 1.2-kilometer double-line potlines will churn out 585,000 tonnes of primary aluminium a year. But no one in this project is under the illusion that reaching the finish line on time and on budget will be an easy cruise.

The Qatalum company, which will operate the aluminium plant when completed is headed by CEO Truls Gautesen. In parallel to the construction project, an organization to operate the smelter is built up.

When Qatalum is in full operation, permanent employees in the Qatalum company will be given equal conditions, including salary levels, housing and other benefits, regardless of where in the world they come from. 

Managing challenges big and small

“Every day we are faced with challenges, from securing enough concrete in a region where the construction sector is rocketing to organizing lunch for thousands of workers from all faiths and from very different cultures,” Røtjer says.

Adaptability is a key issue, as the challenges are often very different from what Hydro is used to. Whereas cold can be a challenge in the north, heat is a challenge in Qatar: temperatures could reach some 50 degrees Celsius in the summer months.

To meet this challenge, a separate heat stress program is in operation, which includes continuous assessment of the heat to determine whether work needs to be halted, drinking stations everywhere on site and in the village built to house workers and split-day working hours to avoid the most intense midday sun during peak periods. 

Giant project, giant workforce

With a workforce that may rise to 16,000-18,000 at the peak – most travelling from far-away places such as India, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Pakistan and the Philippines
– housing posed an obvious challenge when Qatalum got the go-ahead.

Qatalum responded by building an entire village from scratch, with air-conditioned housing, canteens serving food according to religion and taste, leisure activities, medical services, mosque and transport to and from work.

The Construction Village can house up to 10,000 workers on behalf of Qatalum contractors, while the remaining are housed at other facilities by the contractors themselves.

“With the Construction Village, Qatalum is able to ensure the standard of living conditions for all who live there,” Tom Røtjer says, adding that the purpose-built village has an above-the-norm comfort and service level for foreign workers in Qatar.

“The Construction Village has set a new standard, with regard to hygiene and health services, multiple cuisines, leisure activities, mosque, shops and banking,” Røtjer says.

Salary levels of foreign construction workers in Qatar vary according to which contractor or sub-contractor they work for and from which country they are hired, but with the current Gulf-region building boom all are dependent on offering competitive salaries. A typical salary could be around 1200 QAR (approx USD 330) a month for unskilled labor, based on a six-day working week consisting of 48 standard hours and maximum 12 overtime hours. Salary levels for foremen are around four times higher or above. Housing and food is free of charge. 

Working on workers’ rights

Historically rooted in Norway, Hydro is steeped in the Nordic tradition of close and continuous dialogue between management and workers as the company realizes that this is not only good for welfare, but also good for the bottom line.

But just as several other countries in the Middle-East and elsewhere, Qatar has a different culture, tradition and legal framework for employer-worker dialogue than in Europe. Qatalum is therefore encouraging alternative ways of facilitating such relations.

“We see the lack of formal organization rights for foreign workers in Qatar as a challenge,” Gautesen said. “But we are evaluating alternative ways of dialogue that safeguard the intention behind the right to organize and allow the voices of our workers to be heard.”   

In addition to continuous informal on-site dialogue, worker representatives from all main contractors are asked to meet regularly in a special forum to discuss issues of importance, relevance and interest to the workforce. Workers may also make suggestions and give feedback via a message-box system.

Just as other construction projects dependent on foreign workers in Qatar and several other countries in the Middle East, Qatalum’s contractors are faced with a sponsorship system whereby foreign workers are dependent on having a national guaranteeing for them vis-à-vis the authorities during their stay.

This is necessary to obtain a working permission, entry and exit visas, meaning that a foreign worker needs permission from his or her sponsor to leave. This goes for all workers in Qatar, including all those employed by Hydro in Qatar.   

“We tell our contractors and sub-contractors to only use highly reputable agents when hiring foreign workers, and we welcome the public debate underway in Qatar about changing this system.”“That our contractors' workers are subject to a Qatari sponsor is a more rigid system than what we are used to in Europe,” Gautesen says.

Qatalum’s 13 main contractors have around 500 sub-contractors, with thousands delivering goods or services to these sub-contractors again. Qatalum has a system of referred responsibility with its main contractors. To monitor compliance, the Qatalum project makes control spot checks across the chain.

24/7 focus on HSE

Qatalum is a highly challenging project, and its schedule and budget is put to the test every day. With this ambitious timetable, Qatalum is highly focused on ensuring the highest-possible standards on health, safety and environment (HSE).

Qatalum now has ten times as many on-site HSE inspectors as was originally anticipated to make sure HSE requirements are being met. So far the safety level is well within what Hydro achieved on its recent Ormen Lange gas development project in Norway.

“Our philosophy is that one accident is one too many, and the HSE spotlight needs to shine brightly every step of the way,” Røtjer says, adding:

“Our people are making a tremendous effort to keep the Qatalum safe, sound and on target.”

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