Although Hong Kong remains one of the safest major cities in the world, developing protests throughout the city represent the greatest threat to public security since the government of Hong Kong returned to China in 1997. Contributor Emanuela Boccagni, Commercial Director EMEA at ECA International
Travel warnings are now in place from countries such as Singapore and the US, while the UK Foreign Travel Advice recommends Brits avoid areas where protest are likely to take place, and to be prepared for situations to change quickly.
With over 35,000 British expatriates currently living in Hong Kong, and over 570,000 British nationals visiting in a year, companies managing their mobile employees need to keep abreast of this developing situation, so as to best assist staff travelling to, or working in Hong Kong.
Among the most notable aspects of recent events have been the ‘flash mob’ protests, which have appeared to be quite random in nature. Demonstrations that originally started as organised and peaceful marches have become less predictable, often starting with little warning. The ‘leaderless’ structure of the protests is aimed to cause maximum disruption, and bystanders have been caught up in demonstrations or confrontations unknowingly. As such, residents, both locals and expatriates alike, are increasingly avoiding going out at weekends and evenings when conflict tends to reach a peak. They may also avoid locations that could become flashpoints, such as the commercial districts of Causeway Bay and Mongkok.
For employees and colleagues travelling in and out of Hong Kong, the biggest impact has been in travel schedules. Recent airport closures and cancellation of flights have hindered business travel in a major way. Although flying to a nearby airport, such as Macau, Shenzhen or Zhuhai is feasible, international connections in these places are a lot less frequent. On top of this, there are additional visa requirements and restrictions, especially associated with Shenzhen or Zhuhai, as although Hong Kong is part of the People’s Republic of China, it remains a Special Administrative Region with its own immigration controls. Entering Hong Kong via mainland China will require visitors to acquire double or multiple entry visas, which can only be obtained before arrival at the border.
Hong Kong’s airport is likely to remain a flashpoint for protests, making transportation to and from difficult at times. In recent protests, roads and rail connections to the airport have also been disrupted, causing delays for business travellers. Heightened security at the airport also means that travellers need to allow more time for check-in.
As a result, companies are re-evaluating business travel procedures, with recent actions including:
> ceasing all non-essential business travel into and out of Hong Kong;
> ensuring business travel insurance policies cover losses associated with delays due to civil unrest;
> restricting travel to and from Hong Kong to days when protests are least likely to take place (such as between Tuesday and Friday);
> checking that business travellers’ contact details are kept up to date;
> advising business travellers to choose accommodation with adequate levels of security;
> avoiding stays in hotels near flashpoints, such as government buildings or police stations; and
> recommending to travellers that they avoid protests and large congregations of people.
Finally, another significant impact on expats in Hong Kong is the change in how people in the city interact with each other. Overseas workers in Hong Kong have traditionally been able to engage with their Hong Kong clients and colleagues without fear of prejudice against one’s political opinions. However, recent events have succeeded in polarising society, making people less willing to discuss politics due to the risk of heated discourse.
During such times, businesses and employers are advised to action on the following:
> Implement flexible and/or remote working arrangements. Several multinational corporations operating in Hong Kong have drawn up plans since the protests escalated, with more and more companies adopting flexible hours and remote working arrangements for their Hong Kong workforces – both for assignees and their locally employed colleagues.
> Ensure that assignees register with local consulates in Hong Kong in order to obtain assistance in case of any emergency.
> Establish channels of communication with staff outside of office hours. Protest have often occurred on Sundays, creating a knock-on impact on the beginning of the working week.
> Utilise social media and instant messaging applications, however clearly define the policies of utilising third-party applications for business purposes, and on the collection of personal data (phone numbers etc.).
> Track the safety and compliance of business travellers and provide them with access to tracking tools.
> Monitor and notify staff of immigration requirements in the event of needing to divert to a nearby alternative airport.
> Advise staff to avoid wearing black or white, which are symbols of anti and pro-government parties respectively, or carrying symbols which may be considered totems of either side’s cause, such as the former Hong Kong colonial flag, flags of the USA and China, and even yellow umbrellas.
> Advise staff to refrain from engaging in political discussions and debates while sensitivities are high.
It is clear that events in Hong Kong at present are extremely fluid and, with no end in sight to the protests, employers in the territory will need to stay aware of developments and do all they can to mitigate the impact of disruption. Most international staff continue to live and work in Hong Kong reasonably normally as yet, and although political events are beyond companies’ control, they still have options available to help safeguard the smooth running of business.