Road Warriors: Protecting Workers and Other Challenges in Afghanistan's Construction IndustryPublished: January 06, 2011
At only 23, Fatima Hakimzada is already a veteran entrepreneur. The Kabul native, who fidgets often with her headscarf, draping it down around her shoulders and then again up over her long dark hair, says she started her construction business with her cousin in 2002 when she was only 15. "From my childhood I was interested in working in the community among the people," says Hakimzada. "My older sister had a carpet company when the Taliban was in Afghanistan. I worked with her, too."
That strong work ethic and affinity for community, combined with the destructive toll that war has taken on Afghanistan's infrastructure, have directed Hakimzada on a mission to rebuild the structures and streets of her country. Her company, which she joined after her cousin brought his existing business to Kabul from Turkey, has grown from four people in 2002 to 76 employees. "When we started, we were doing only $400,000 or $800,000 projects," notes Hakimzada, who is vice president. "When we got projects that were $2 million or $3 million, we hired more people and bought some equipment and furniture from Turkey and Afghanistan. We then hired more people and bought more equipment -- like mixers, graders, loaders and dump trucks."
A Risky Job Description
Hakimzada's partnership with her cousin, a male, is more than an auspicious business relationship. It is a necessity. Security is a serious problem in Afghanistan, particularly in the outlying embattled provinces such as Ghazni and Kandahar. Hakimzada works as the office manager in Kabul, handling phone calls, e-mails and local contract negotiations, while her cousin ventures beyond the safer city boundaries for the sake of the business. "He is going outside of Kabul into the provinces, but I can't go to the provinces to control the project sites or to see the projects because security and the situation are not good. Sometimes the Taliban is coming and putting in bombs or mines. It's not safe, especially for women," says Hakimzada.
Employees are forewarned of the risks involved with working on construction sites located in unsafe territories. Hakimzada pays these employees a much higher wage than those working in the office. Choosing to labor on-site has proven to be a life or death decision. "In 2008 in Pektia province, we rebuilt the road. At night they put a bomb under the road and it exploded," recalls Hakimzada. "We lost some of our personnel in this project, and in the Ghazni province we lost three people who were killed by the Taliban."
Employee safety is an elusive prospect in conflict-affected regions like Afghanistan that have few laws and regulations, says Mahbouba Seraj, a 10,000 Women instructor at the American University of Afghanistan. "Safety for employees in Afghanistan is absolutely non-existent. Businesses don't get permits for providing safety standards the way the rest of the world does," says Seraj, who specializes in management and family business. "There is no such thing as insurance for families of people who lose their limbs or die. Individual business owners put whatever safety measures there are in place. If they want to do it, they do it. If they don't want to do it, they don't."
Seraj counsels women entrepreneurs to be safety-conscious from the outset of their businesses, investing capital to equip employees with at least the fundamental tools of a secure work environment. She believes women tend to be more sensitive to safety issues because many understand the dire consequences of losing a family's primary breadwinner. "Business owners have to be very honest and tell prospective employees that, yes, it's a dangerous job and they must be very careful. They should provide them with the very basics for safety, like goggles for welding, gloves, gas masks and hard hats," Seraj notes. "If the owner is accepting an outside contract, then these expenses should be put in the contract. They should negotiate with the contract holder to put money on the side for safety issues or emergencies."
If an employee dies or is injured on the job, Seraj recommends that the business owner talk to the family and, if necessary, pay for the person's hospitalization and possibly even his or her wages. "Business owners should take on some of the responsibility," says Seraj, who speaks from experience. Last year, her personal driver shattered his knee while cleaning the windows outside her house. Having put money aside for just this type of emergency, she paid for his hospitalization, physical therapy and 80% of his salary for the several months he was on the mend. "One day we will have insurance in this country that we can buy for our workers," notes Seraj. "But for now, we have to be ready to help each other when times are not good."
Small construction businesses in Afghanistan also struggle with other challenges, namely bribes and subcontractor issues that erode their project budgets -- and ultimately the quality of their work. "The original budget for a project might be $30 million," says Hakimzada. "The first contractor gets the $30 million and passes the project to the next contractor for $15 million and then on to another contractor for $7 million without any work being done. They are keeping the money for themselves. The quality of the work that the subcontractors do is very low because when the money gets to them, it is not sufficient to do that project. The budget has been cut so much that they end up using low-quality material."
Such obstacles make it difficult for Hakimzada's company -- which, unlike many similar businesses, has equipment, an engineering team and experience -- to compete. As often as possible, they hire local residents and go to local province leaders for project approvals. But even then, they are not guaranteed an easy contract negotiation. "We started a road project in the Ghazni province last year," notes Hakimzada. "We delivered the engineering team and all the equipment to the site, and then the governor of Ghazni said that we could not start the work before getting further permission from him." In reality, he wanted money, in the end taking $220,000 to allow the project to proceed, Hakimzada says.
So why continue in the construction business amid such hassles? For Hakimzada, it is about a connection to home. "I was born in Kabul and I saw during the war every time the buildings collapsed and the streets were destroyed," she says. "I have to work and rebuild Afghanistan."