TNK-BP Quizzed in Labor Inquiry

APMen carrying documents Monday into the Presnensky District Prosecutor's Office, where TNK-BP vice president Clark Cridland faced two hours of questions.
The pressure on TNK-BP intensified Monday as prosecutors questioned one of its senior executives in an inquiry into the British-Russian firm's hiring and remuneration of its foreign employees.

The probe could lead to TNK-BP having to further reduce its foreign staff and comes as concerns grow that a state firm such as Gazprom or Rosneft is poised to take control of the country's second-biggest independent oil producer.

TNK-BP's vice president responsible for human resources, Clark Cridland, went in place of CEO Robert Dudley to the Presnensky District Prosecutor's Office in Moscow on Monday. Two men carried in a box of documents, and Cridland, a company lawyer and a translator spent two hours inside the office.

TNK-BP spokespeople could not be reached for comment Monday afternoon.

The questioning came a day after a senior government official warned in an off-the-record briefing at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum that a widening feud between BP and its Russian shareholders would get worse. The sale of a stake in TNK-BP to Gazprom would be "the worst-case scenario," the official said.

On Tuesday, TNK-BP faces further scrutiny when Dudley is to give evidence to the authorities on a probe into back taxes of $950 million dating back to 2001 to 2003.

At the Prosecutor's Office, Cridland was questioned about a complaint by a group of trade unions that TNK-BP may be discriminating in favor of foreign specialists and against Russian employees on pay levels and job opportunities.

The prosecutors requested more documents from the company, said Yury Basov, the office's chief prosecutor, who is supervising the inquiry. If prosecutors confirm the labor and migration violations, they could fine TNK-BP, issue a warning or recommend changes, Basov said. The investigation will probably last two weeks, he said.

A group of unions covering the oil and gas industry is concerned that TNK-BP may be discriminating against Russians by offering higher salaries to foreign staff of the same rank and may prevent Russians from seeking the same jobs that foreigners currently hold, according to a copy of their letter obtained by The Moscow Times on Monday.

Prosecutors began their investigation after a trade union commission, headed by a former Gazprom executive, wrote to TNK-BP on the issue, a prosecutor and a union leader said Monday.

The labor probe is the latest in a series of attacks on TNK-BP this year, seen by some as aimed at wresting control of company operations from Dudley and his management team, ahead of a possible takeover by a state firm.

Gazprom deputy chief executive Alexander Medvedev on Saturday reiterated the gas giant's interest in acquiring a stake in TNK-BP, saying its assets would be "a perfect fit" with Gazprom's, Bloomberg reported.

BP, which holds half of TNK-BP, last month refused the demands of the Russian AAR shareholder group — Mikhail Fridman's Alfa, Len Blavatnik's Access and Viktor Vekselberg's Renova — which holds the other half of the company, to fire Dudley after he went public on disagreements between the shareholders. The Russians want fewer foreign employees and expansion abroad, even if it rivals BP's own projects in those countries.

In March, about 150 foreign specialists seconded from BP had their work permits withdrawn, and two months later, after securing new visas, they were denied entry to TNK-BP offices by security staff acting under orders from the company's executive director, German Khan, a business partner of Fridman's in Alfa Group.

Talks last week between BP chief executive Tony Hayward and Fridman in Moscow appeared to make some progress, and afterward both sides said they would "take time out" before resuming negotiations.

The unions' letter had asked Dudley to inform a special union commission about salary levels and employment requirements for Russian and foreign employees, said Lev Mironov, president of the group of oil and gas trade unions.

Dudley's response to the commission, headed by Yevgeny Cherepanov, a former midlevel Gazprom official, said little more than that the company was in full compliance with the law, Mironov said. In February, the trade unions complained to prosecutors.

Cherepanov's most senior position at Gazprom was deputy director responsible for personnel at subsidiary Nadymgazprom from 1997 to 2006.

A Gazprom spokesman on Monday declined to comment when asked whether Gazprom had any connection to the unions' inquiry.

The unions were tipped off about salary differences in a letter from the usually employer-friendly Federation of Independent Trade Unions, Mironov said. The federation, in turn, had reacted to a letter from then-State Duma Deputy Sergei Zhitinkin of United Russia, the union leader said.

Zhitinkin was not re-elected to the Duma in December and could not be located for comment Monday.

Alexei Mukhin, a political analyst, said businesses often enlisted Duma deputies for help in corporate matters. "A number of deputies have no problem providing such services," he said.

The Federation of Independent Trade Unions, a pro-Kremlin umbrella group, defended its involvement in the matter. "The union has information that Russian and foreign employees of similar categories, as regards the company management, get different salaries," Oleg Netrebsky, deputy chairman of the federation, said Monday, Interfax reported. "The difference is more than twofold."

In the tax probe, Dudley has been summoned to appear at the Interior Ministry's department for the Central Federal District on Tuesday to answer questions about a tax-evasion case dating back to 2001-2003 and concerning TNK, the company that later became part of the Russian-British venture.

TNK-BP has said it considers its tax arrears settled, but Russian law allows charges to be brought against managers suspected of tax evasion even after the state budget has been reimbursed.

The firm's shareholder dispute appeared to deepen in March after the arrest of one of its employees on industrial espionage charges and raids on its offices and the Moscow offices of BP by Federal Security Service agents.

A year ago, TNK-BP agreed to sell a majority stake in the huge Kovykta gas field in eastern Siberia to Gazprom, but the deal has still not been completed.