Recent events in Hong Kong represent the greatest threat to public security since the government of Hong Kong returned to China in 1997. However, although travel warnings are now in place from countries such as Singapore and the US, Hong Kong remains one of the safest major cities in the world. Indeed, the expatriate population there, including families, is largely unchanged in terms of numbers.
However, while Hong Kong remains a safe destination where people are still trying to live and work as normal, HR professionals managing their mobile employees, including business travellers and both short- and long-term assignees, need to stay aware of what is a 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. When the protest movement started, it consisted mainly of large-scale organised demonstrations. Marches, which had received prior approval, took place at weekends and typically ended peacefully. As they evolved, protests would often end with a minority of participants facing off against police at high-profile locations. However, due in part to the perceived lack of impact of large-scale protests, demonstrations have recently become less predictable, often starting with little warning at one location before quickly moving on elsewhere. This reflects both the ‘leaderless’ structure of protestors and the aim to cause maximum disruption. Tactics are also designed to ensure protestors can evade police detection, while causing maximum impact (such as recent blockades of transport infrastructure, such as subway stations, the airport and toll crossings between Hong Kong Island and the mainland).
Furthermore, as the campaign has evolved, and instances of violence have increased, people have been caught up in demonstrations or confrontations unknowingly. As such, residents, both locals and expatriates alike, are increasingly avoiding going out at weekends, especially in the evenings when conflict tends to reach a peak. They also may try to avoid locations that could become potential flashpoints, such as the major commercial districts of Causeway Bay and Mongkok. Companies should ensure that assignees register with local consulates in Hong Kong in order to obtain assistance in case of any emergency.
The protests have also required many companies to implement flexible and/or remote working arrangements. Until recently, Asian employers typically had not embraced such practices to the same extent as their peers in Europe and North America, but they are now catching up. Several multinational corporations operating in Hong Kong have drawn up contingency plans since the protests began to escalate and we are seeing more and more companies adopting flexible working hours and home working arrangements for their Hong Kong workforces – both for assignees and their locally employed colleagues.
Additionally, owing to the unpredictable nature of the protests and the fact that more intense confrontations between protestors and authorities have often occurred on Sundays (creating a potential knock-on impact on the beginning of the working week), it has become important to establish channels to communicate with staff outside of office hours. Social media and instant messaging applications have become crucial tools, not least to deal with requests to work from home. However, companies need to define and communicate policies on the use of third-party applications for business purposes and on the collection of personal data, such as employees’ mobile phone numbers, while also refining lines of decision making and empowering appropriate staff accordingly. With several high-profile terminations of employees having come about because of social media activity in recent years, it has become increasingly important for companies to regularly remind staff of their obligations and ensure that messaging applications are used for appropriate reasons. For example, many companies request employees to refrain from using social media groups as a medium through which to express political views.
For colleagues travelling into and out of Hong Kong, the biggest impact has been in travel schedules. Recent airport closures and cancellation of flights have obviously hindered business travel in a major way. Although the option of flying to a nearby airport instead, such as Macau, Shenzhen or Zhuhai is feasible, international connections in these places are a lot less frequent than they are in Hong Kong. On top of this, there are often additional visa requirements and restrictions, especially associated with Shenzhen or Zhuhai, not forgetting the extra time factor.
Travel to and from the airport has also been badly affected. In recent protests, roads and rail connections to the airport have been disrupted, causing delays for business travellers. Heightened security at the airport also means that travellers need to allow more time for check-in.
While long-term expatriate residents will often know how to manage the impact, companies should track business travellers and provide them with access to tracking tools, such as global tracker (which allows employees to notify colleagues if they are in an unsafe situation). They should also notify them of immigration requirements in the event of needing to divert to a nearby alternative airport. Hong Kong airport is likely to remain a flashpoint as long as protests continue and 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 impact of recent developments that assignees and their managers should be aware of is the change in how people in Hong Kong interact with each other. Overseas workers in Hong Kong have traditionally been able to engage with their Hong Kong clients and colleagues freely without fear of prejudice against one’s political opinions. Likewise, they have found that Hong Kongers have been forthcoming in expressing their own opinions and tolerating political opinions of others. However, recent events have succeeded in polarising society with the result that people are less willing to discuss politics due to the risk of discourse becoming heated. As seen previously in Thailand, pro and anti-establishment parties have identified themselves with certain colours and symbols. As a business traveller, it is therefore important to be aware of this and avoid wearing black or white (symbols of anti and pro-government parties respectively), or carrying symbols which may be considered totems of either side’s cause (examples include the former Hong Kong colonial flag, flags of the USA and China, and even yellow umbrellas).
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.
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