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As Hong Kong protests linger, employers and job candidates are considering interim moves to Singapore, Taiwan, recruiting firm says

Chad Bray chadwick.bray@scmp.com

Months of anti-government protests and civil unrest in Hong Kong have prompted global banks and other employers to consider hiring in alternative locations like Singapore and Taiwan until situation improves, according to recruiting firm Robert Walters.

Employers and job candidates are taking a "much more conservative approach" to hiring and job changes because of concerns about the market outlook following steep economic losses in the city's tourism, retail and property sectors, managing director Ricky Mui said.

"Where there is an option of having headcount in Hong Kong or abroad, usually Taiwan or Singapore, companies will actually prefer to move the headcount away from Hong Kong in the interim," he said in an interview. "Some cautious candidates actually prefer to be based outside Hong Kong due to the market conditions and social unrest."

The firm has seen more of such temporary arrangements in the current job market, he added.

The protests that began in June over a now-withdrawn extradition bill have since morphed into broader demands for universal suffrage amid concerns the city's high degree of autonomy is being eroded. Hong Kong police have fired more than 10,000 rounds of tear gas and arrested over 5,800 people in months of disturbances

Investors 'cautious' about Hong Kong as protests, trade war linger

Violent protesters have targeted the city's transport networks to force their demands, hurting businesses from retailers to hoteliers as many tourists skipped Hong Kong for holidays. Along with the impact of US-China trade war, the local economy fell into a technical recession last quarter.

Against the weakening economic backdrop in Hong Kong and globally, big banks have been cutting jobs and costs to improve their profitability.

Prospects tighten for expat bankers as Hong Kong lenders trim staff

Deutsche Bank said in July that it would slash about 18,000 jobs and close its equity sales and trading business globally. HSBC said in October that it would accelerate its cost reduction efforts, including job cuts, while Morgan Stanley is reportedly cutting 1,500 positions worldwide.

At Robert Walters in Hong Kong, about 10 per cent of the recruiting requests from companies indicated their willingness to move the role to Singapore or Taiwan on an interim basis, Mui said.

"I'm not getting requests every time we get a role but where there is an opportunity that is more flexible, they'll say 'location: flexible, Hong Kong, Taiwan or Singapore'," he added. Negotiations on alternative locations are seen as a preventive measure, he added.

Retailers such as Hermes report resilient revenue despite Hong Kong protests

Given the economic outlook, companies in banking and professional services and prospective hires were expecting smaller salary increases than they did in 2019. The expected salary increase was 10 per cent to 15 per cent next year, compared with 10 per cent to 20 per cent in 2019, Robert Walters said in a survey published in November.

Hiring in 2020 will be conservative as most employers have done or are doing their budgets with a wait-and-see approach, Mui said.

A survey by the Munich-based international expatriates' organisation InterNations rates Taipei as the best place to live and work abroad in 2019. Photo: EPA-EFE alt=A survey by the Munich-based international expatriates' organisation InterNations rates Taipei as the best place to live and work abroad in 2019. Photo: EPA-EFE

"Hong Kong is all about investor confidence and if Phase One of the trade war gets sorted, that will boost investor confidence," he said. Further peaceful protests, like one seen earlier this month, could start to bring a bit of confidence back into the workforce as well, he added.

That more cautious approach has also led to lengthening hiring processes, additional stages of interviews and more rigorous due diligence on candidates. In some cases, companies have frozen headcount in the fourth quarter.

This article originally appeared in the South China Morning Post (SCMP), the most authoritative voice reporting on China and Asia for more than a century. For more SCMP stories, please explore the SCMP app or visit the SCMP's Facebook and Twitter pages. Copyright © 2020 South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

Copyright (c) 2020. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.