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Hong Kong expats are relocating at a faster pace than before
Author: EnglishTeacher    2022-01-10

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British national Anne is preparing to leave Hong Kong, a place she has called home for the past seven years.


Her family “adores” the city of 7.5 million, but she is giving up its seasons and scenic country parks for Singapore’s urban landscape. For the mother of two young children, the issue is the 21-day hotel quarantine that is mandatory for all returning residents. Anne, a homemaker has not seen her family in Britain for three years.


“We desperately miss our families but the three-week quarantine and the continual instability of flights is too much,” said Anne, who intends to relocate in April. “My mental health has suffered considerably due to the fear of the consequence of contracting Covid-19.”


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Pedestrians cross the street during lunch time in Central, Hong Kong.


Those who get the virus in Hong Kong are immediately sent to hospital for at least 10 days. After testing negative twice, they are isolated in government facilities for another 14 days. On Wednesday, the government said it would ban flights from eight places including the United States and Britain for two weeks, citing a surge in imported Omicron cases threatening to overwhelm health care facilities. It also announced a ban on dining in restaurants after 6pm and the closure of leisure and entertainment facilities for two weeks.


As the pandemic enters a third year with no end in sight, commentators said returning to measures first adopted in 2020 when vaccines were not yet available did not inspire confidence in Hong Kong’s pandemic management strategy, given that other financial hubs were staying relatively open.

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The Hong Kong skyline


The three relocation firms that This Week in Asia spoke to said the exit rate for Hong Kong’s expats, who made up an estimated 10 per cent of the population in 2019, was fast outpacing the rate at which foreigners were moving in.


While the talk in legal and banking circles is that many of these departing expats and their jobs are heading to Singapore, the relocation firms and consultants said those leaving were also heading to Britain, Canada and Australia.


While multinational companies said they were committed to staying put, analysts said a sustained stream of expats departing Hong Kong – a city long touted as a magnet for skilled labour – was a worrying sign and could dent the economy. Its international status as a financial business centre was likely to be hit, said Chua Hak Bin, an economist at Maybank.


“Hong Kong will increasingly become just another Chinese city rather than a global hub as the composition of nationalities of both companies and talent change,” he said. “Hong Kong will risk losing some of its uniqueness and diversity if expats no longer feel the same pull to live and work there.”

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Pedestrians in Hong Kong. 


High exit rate


At Asian Tigers, a Hong Kong-based relocation firm, the number of customers leaving Hong Kong is three times of those arriving. This has been the case for the past 18 months, according to chief executive Rob Chipman.


“Historically, the ratio has always hovered close to 1:1 so 3:1 is quite unusual,” said Chipman, who has been in the relocation industry for 25 years. The ratio of people leaving for Singapore to those coming from Singapore was even higher than 3:1, he added.


Allied, a firm that provides moving and packing services, reported similar figures – the number of customers who moved out of Hong Kong in 2021 was almost double the number leaving in 2019. At the same time, there was a 43 per cent drop in the number of people moving to Hong Kong.


Chipman said there were several reasons for the trend. The first was job-related, with people finding new jobs in a different city or opting for a transfer within the same company.


Pandemic fatigue, like in Anne’s case, was another factor. “Much of the joy of living in Hong Kong has been the freedom to come and go easily on holiday, visit home and family in their origin country, and the ability to travel for business,” he said. “The three-week quarantine has really tipped the scales.”


Allied said the number of Hong Kong residents relocating to Singapore had almost doubled from before the pandemic, attributing this to the contrasting Covid-19 strategies adopted by both cities.


Hong Kong is continuing with a zero-tolerance approach while the Singapore government has decided to learn to live with the virus, reasoning that it was not possible to keep it out indefinitely.


Consequently, Singapore has a more relaxed border policy. It now has quarantine-free travel arrangements for vaccinated persons with a list of countries, including the US, Britain and South Korea – a move welcomed by the business community.


Given Hong Kong’s restrictions, “a lot of reasons why it’s great being an expat in Hong Kong simply disappeared”, said an Allied spokesperson.

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Holland village in Singapore is a favourite with expats.


John Hu, founder of John Hu Migration Consulting, which specialises in processing business visas for countries including the US, Canada and Australia, said there was a 30 per cent jump in applications last year but numbers had tapered slightly. Now, there were 20 to 50 applicants each month.


Looming brain drain


Multiple reports over the past year have pointed to firms either ceasing or downsizing their operations, with confidence rocked by stringent pandemic restrictions.


German lender Commerzbank was looking to exit Hong Kong as part of its restructuring plans and would shift its Asia operations to Singapore.


When contacted, five other global banks said they were still committed to their operations in Hong Kong. Deutsche Bank said it had hired “significantly” in Hong Kong last year while Citibank said it continued to be “very active”, employing “several hundreds”.

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Paddlers pass the central business district, at Marina Bay in Singapore


Credit Suisse said Hong Kong remained an “important hub”, noting its long history in the special administrative region. Goldman Sachs said it expects its headcount in Hong Kong – and Singapore – to grow in 2022.


Meanwhile, VP Wealth Management – the Hong Kong outfit of Liechtenstein-based VP Bank – in November announced the expansion of its Hong Kong office. Reto Marx, its Hong Kong head, said that the city was a “market of great importance”, and that it had plans to grow its team there.


However, a recent scan of jobs listed on recruitment sites and job boards like LinkedIn show more firms are advertising for roles that can be based either in Hong Kong or Singapore. These include openings at financial services firms, including Goldman Sachs.


Peony Lim, director of recruitment firm ALS International, said employers now exercise greater flexibility when it comes to location as the pandemic has demonstrated that remote working can be productive.


“Companies are not fixated on where, traditionally, their hubs are. Hubs are very fluid now,” she said.


Trade associations have sounded the alarm for a potential brain drain among expats. In response to queries, the Australia Chamber of Commerce said Hong Kong’s border closures and quarantine requirements “heavily impacts” its attractiveness as a global business hub.


“The Hong Kong government’s unpredictable changes to managing travel restrictions have caused significant inconvenience for our members and the business community.” Australian firms that had left Hong Kong cited the uncertainty surrounding border measures and the desire to be close to family, it said.


Separate surveys conducted by the British Chamber of Commerce and American Chamber of Commerce last year found that companies had experienced difficulty recruiting people to Hong Kong and that their staff had left due to the quarantine rules. Some American firms indicated they had drawn up plans to move to Singapore.

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Pedestrians on Russell Street in Causeway Bay, Hong Kong.


Philip Chan, president of the Hong Kong-Singapore Business Association, said there had been an “obvious” increase in Hong Kong business owners approaching the organisation, which helps firms settle in the city state, in recent months.


Most of them, he said, belonged to the finance sector and were looking at bringing their Hong Kong-based families over. The association, with close to 150 members now, saw the sharpest increase in membership applications in the past year.


Chan said lower property prices and a less stressful environment made Singapore attractive to workers in Hong Kong.


For one Hongkonger, Stanley Chan, Singapore’s thriving wealth and asset management industry was the key reason for his relocation in February last year. 

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Victoria Harbour waterfront in Hong Kong.


Source: This Week in Asia


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