March 10, 2022
The Pandemic is Currently Affecting Mobility for Hong Kong’s Local and Expatriate Populations
Impediments to Remobilization in Hong Kong
Managing a globally mobile workforce in a VUCA environment; reflecting the volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity of general conditions, has become part of the innate credo of global mobility professionals overseeing programs of all sizes over the last few years. The rollout of vaccines across the world’s major economies has started to facilitate freedom of movement which, although not quite at pre-pandemic levels, has allowed organizations to remobilize some of their workforce.
Current conditions in Hong Kong, however, offer a vivid insight into the differing approaches to how nations and indeed economies emerge from the pandemic. To varying degrees, many Western governments have removed almost all restrictions imposed on their citizens over the past two years – certainly for their vaccinated population. This approach accepts that certain levels of virus will continue to circulate amongst the population at an endemic level. This approach sits in stark contrast to that of China and Hong Kong, which has adopted the same strategy as the mainland of "dynamic zero Covid", involving early testing, detailed contact tracing, strict quarantine rules, and tight travel restrictions.
At the end of 2021, Hong Kong had only recorded 12,650 cases, though the onset of the Omicron variant has pushed cases beyond 66,000 in just a few months. To manage the situation, Hong Kong’s government will test every resident three times over three weeks in March to identify and isolate the infected and avoid a city-wide lockdown.
Flight bans from nine countries including the U.S., U.K. and Australia will be extended to April 20, with transit travel also banned for all passengers except those from the mainland and Taiwan and for those that can enter, lengthy quarantines are imposed. In total, air passenger volumes have dropped 85% since 2020.
There have been reports of panic buying, and long queues have forming outside banks and pharmacies in anticipation of a lockdown the government is keen to avoid.
Even prior to the existing swath of restrictions, well-publicized concerns about conditions at Penny’s Bay quarantine centre led to British Airways suspending flights to Hong Kong. Currently both Lufthansa and Air France have also suspended direct flights. From a day-to-day living perspective, bars cinemas and gyms were closed just after the beginning of the year and a 6pm curfew was imposed on restaurants.
In the short term, some multinational companies have temporarily relocated senior executives out of Hong Kong. There are reports of organizations moving employees to Singapore in to mid- to long-term as questions are raised over Hong Kong’s future as the region’s main financial hub, with Beijing’s imposition of the national security law in 2020 providing additional political volatility.
The attractiveness of what used to be a plum assignment for many expatriates has lost a great deal of its shine. The extent to which this will endure for both existing and future assignees remains to be seen. Global mobility professionals with assignees in Hong Kong will undoubtedly be aware that the territory was top of Mercer’s most expensive places to live survey in 2016, 2018, 2019 and 2020 and second in 2015, 2017 and 2021. A phasing in of local talent with Mandarin or Cantonese language skills could well prove to be a more effective solution than expensive international assignments.
Global mobility teams will equally be acutely aware of the impact of international freight prices on assignment costs which have quadrupled on Asia traffic lanes over the course of the pandemic and show little promise of returning to pre-pandemic levels. The current environment for repatriating assignees is even hampered by a limited ability to ship pets, with many airlines no longer able take animals or having limited quotas for them.
As has been the case throughout the pandemic, Global mobility is finding the necessary agility to support the organization and its mobile workforce in volatile and unpredictable circumstances which vary from region to region and country to country. Sterling Lexicon has offices in China and Singapore and supports corporate clients with local, regional expertise in assignment and logistical management.
As Account Director at Sterling Lexicon, Stuart focuses on working with clients to optimize their global mobility solutions. Stuart has worked in global mobility for 19 years. His broad experience of working with different program sizes across a variety of industry sectors helps to bring success to clients' programs and wider business strategies. If you would like to discuss any of the points raised in this article or learn more about Sterling Lexicon, please do not hesitate to contact Stuart Jackson at firstname.lastname@example.org.