hazard pay

About 11 years ago, living in Moscow, I was approached – like most of my fellow expat managers – with a bizarre proposition. Leave the relative safety of Moscow and head out to my firm’s furtherestest outpost – Bosnia.

I’ll take a step back and point out that I was already in what was considered a hazard-pay environment. Mid-90s Moscow was a place ruled by the mafia – a wild and unregulated place in which shootings in broad daylight were conducted with impunity.  Businesspeople were assassinated.  Death was a palpable presence.

Imagine coming into this environment and recruiting for a place like Bosnia. I’ve read a lot about the conflict there – far more than is healthy.  I’ve read at least two books that shook me so much that I threw them away afterwards, rather than ever risk reading them again.  A coworker of mine, a wonderfully cheerful young woman who had been a TV personality in pre-war Bosnia told me gruesome tales of crawling through mud and being repeatedly beaten and humiliated trying to escape (she was an ethnic Muslim, and I assume probably far worse occurred that she didn’t want to share).  She was happy, nonetheless, because she made it out and got to America.

Cathedral in Bosnia
photo credit: leestudent

But back to Moscow, circa 1997:  my firm wanted people to come into Bosnia. Money was screaming for the gentle validation of auditors.  Hotels needed to be built.  Imagine this job advert:  come to a place where you will need to wear bulletproof vests in public; where you will be hated and reviled everywhere you go; where you will work like a maniac to reestablish your profession for the benefit of your firm but not yourself. Oh, and you will get tons of money, a promotion and live life at the edge – accountant on fire.  It may sound awful but I was tempted.

The money was good – hazard pay of double normal salary plus a massive per diem. Drivers, personal assistants, 2 months per year time off.  In an environment like that a hard-working young lad like yours truly could grab the future by the, er, horns and go along for the ride.  But I passed.  It wasn’t for me.  Moscow was close enough to the edge.  The first time I walked out of a bar and stumbled over a corpse (not kidding), I decided that was close enough to the edge for me.

But there are people who want that kind of experience. Smart Spending tells us one such story.  For me it was easy – life is not ALWAYS about maximizing income.  Moscow was risky enough.  Bosnia was for the adrenaline junkies.  Let’s be fair here – if I worked in medicine or some other profession where people might benefit from my presence, I might’ve considered Bosnia.  For accounting and fairly audited financial statements?  Er, not so much.

I don’t regret not going to Bosnia to work. I’ve been offered a lot of hazard-pay assignments:  Saudi Arabia, Bosnia, Siberia…  and I’ve come to realize that while I’ve got a streak of risk-taking in me, it only extends to so far.  I commend people who do go work in dangerous parts of the world like Bosnia, or the Middle East, or Newark.  But everyone has a limit, and mine was reached when I was told I would have to wear a bulletproof vest when outdoors.  Call me kooky.

16 comments

  • Circa 2004, I knew someone who was given the chance to work in Iraq at four times normal pay. They said they could guarantee his safety, though he was obviously skeptical. He turned it down.

  • We get offered this a lot in my line too (mostly in backwaters of the middle east but all over – including russia and Iraq), but I've yet to work with anyone who's accepted any of the non-big-city-asia assignments. I somehow think the experience wouldn't be entirely suitable for a short blonde woman, anyhoo.

    But an immediate relative of mine has built power plants in some of the hairiest parts of the world over the course of a 30 year career and loves it. He bounces from one crazy locale to the other – but I don't believe it's necessarily for the cash. My relative and his pals live well in terms of experience between contracts (beachside rentals, attending pro sporting events, drinking expensive whiskey) but aren't materialistic and don't have families to support. They love the locations, the work, the stories, the male-bonding. To sustain this I think you have to be built for it rather than just money hungry – in addition to being a talented engineer he's a long-bearded, cowboy-booted, chain-smoking, heavy-drinking hard man; cushy corporate life in Ireland or N.America would probably kill him.

  • I'm thinking that people that want to do this, aren't particularly thinking of the money. I mean, people in my company get seconded to Dubai, and although it does pay better than the UK, really they're partly doing it for the lifestyle. The riskier the place, the greater the adrenaline junkie required.

  • without details, got a similar and ridiculously tempting offer. like, 3 years of it, and i was done working for life. i like to think i'm built for it, but there are other factors (like my principles) that made me turn it down.

    so instead, i'm going to try to interview n korean refugees. 🙂

  • You mean there are people that actually work in Newark?!?!

    • It's just a rumor, Shadox. I heard a guy knew a guy whose brother took a job there, but I'm not sure I believe it 🙂

    • Half an hour at Newark airport is like an eternity. Oh, hold on, it was. The connecting flight was cancelled.

  • I had some misgivings too, when I took on a job in Ghana. But it turned out to be the best (the absolute very best) experience I ever had.

    This week there is also a news story about a manager in India getting lynched and killed.

    Bosnia (in those days) and places like Afghanistan have far, far higher danger indices, still a young person out looking for adventure and not looking for trouble might be able to save a bomb out of a stint like this.

    • My father worked as a civil engineer in Afghanistan during the war with Soviets in 80's. He got paid a LOT. This was big break for our family. Suddenly we were so well off. I was 9-11 y.o. (he had a 2 year contract). We would see him every 6 months for 1 month. Saying good-byes at the airport was always heartbreaking. As a child I remember my mom cried a lot when she would not get a letter, thinking every time that I may never see my dad again. It was 2 years of agony. Plus my father would wake up in cold sweat from having nightmares for many, many years afterwards.
      But we were rich. My parents finally could save a lot of money, which was devalued to a pile of beans when the Ruble became worthless, when the Soviet Union collapsed shortly after. Imagine loosing $100,000 overnight?

      With all this financial mess going on in the USA, I feel like I am reliving the Soviet financial crisis and collapse all over again. You know why most Russian people don't save? Because you never know what might happen to your money tomorrow, you might as well spend them now, buy something, live today.

  • My military travels took me to many places that qualified for hazard pay – and a few times I was closer to the action than I would have liked. At the time, it was my duty and I went without question. Now that I am no longer bound to military service (and now that I am married), I have no desire to expose myself to those situations. Your life is not worth a few extra shekels.

  • Phew! No thanks for me either. All that risk pay is worthless if you end up disappearing…

  • A Russian native, I have been living in the States for the last 16 years. My mom often asked me if I want to come back and live in Russia for a while. But the truth is, it is a very difficult business environment and it will require a major adjustment on my part.

    Frankly, I am not sure if I would be able to adjust.

    As a small business owner who works for herself, I don't want to collect my account receivables with a help of a hit man, or pay a bribe to get a hotel room. Things like that would drive me nuts. But Russian business people don't think twice about that.

    If you think we got problems in the States, try to navigate your way in Russia for a year and not as a well-paid corporate America employee, but on your own. When you come back, you will re-discover how good we have it here even with the recent economic turmoil.

    • Irina, my friend who's lived in the USA for the past 12 years moved to Moscow with her husband to work. Even though they both speak fluent Russian, being born and raised during Soviet and post-Soviet era, everything in Russia is foreign to them. She dislikes living there: the mentality is different, even culture seems different, people are rude for the most part, etc. She cannot wait to come back Home to the US.
      So, looks like you made the right decision not to move back there.

  • Amber Jones

    I don't think I could have taken a job like that either. I have a family to think about here.

  • @bubelah Yes. We are different now. I am Russian, but I am don't belong in Russia anymore. It is sad. I feel more at home any other place but Russia.

  • @bubelah Yes. We are different now. I am Russian, but I am don't belong in Russia anymore. It is sad. I feel more at home any other place but Russia.