The pressure of Hong Kong’s tough quarantine laws have proved to be the final straw for one expat banker.
The Times has spoken to Bettina Schael, the pseudonym of a banker “with a global remit” and a mother of four who was born in Hong Kong to expat parents, is leaving Hong Kong after being unable to see her children at Christmas.
Hong Kong’s strict quarantine laws and travel restrictions meant Schael couldn’t travel to see three of her four children, who are studying in the UK.
““If your kids are younger and inside the bubble, it’s OK — but if you have older kids studying overseas or elderly parents, it’s a different kind of pressure,” Schael told the Times.
Living under Draconian travel restrictions has also made it difficult for Schael to do her job effectively. “ If you are in a global role and competing with people who can travel globally, it doesn’t make sense to be here, out of the running. I have teams I haven’t met yet, and it doesn’t look like it’s going to end any time soon,” she added.
There has been talk for months about the prospect of expats with elderly relatives or children overseas leaving Hong Kong, but now it is becoming a reality. Schael expects to hear of more people in finance leaving the city after the annual bonuses are paid at the end of March — and she thinks numbers will fall at international schools as children leave with their parents.
One banker told eFinancialCareers that this summer will prove to be a watershed moment. “So many people I speak to who have kids in private school back in the UK are saying the same thing – we can’t spend another summer with these restrictions. If you’re young and single and starting your career, then Hong Kong still has an attraction. But if you’ve got a family, and you want to see them,” it’s impossible.
Another senior executive in financial services, told the Times. “There is a view everyone will leave in the summer, so some are hoping to pre-empt that and leave in the spring to avoid the rush.”
Schael told The Times she doesn’t believe Hong Kong authorities will look to stem the tide of departing ex-pats. “Hong Kong chief executive] Carrie Lam doesn’t care; she knows Chinese bankers will come in and take our place — she will populate the town with mainlanders. Her only strategy is to get into China. China wants Hong Kong to be part of the fold — stop the rebellion by diluting the dissenters.”
Some say talk of an exodus is wide of the mark. Hong Kong may be a tougher place to live and work, but it still retains some of its lustre relative to other financial centres, not least because of the size of its market. “Anything equity-related continues to be Hong Kong-focused,” a senior ex-pat banker told eFC. Some banks have relocated fixed income trading desks and personnel to Singapore, but bankers are generally lukewarm about moving there.
It’s quite difficult to get work permits in both Hong Kong and Singapore,” the banker added. “In Singapore there’s always been some informal quotas on how many foreigners you can have relative to Singapore nationals. They’re getting more focused on that now, and it’s getting increasingly difficult to hire foreign nationals in Singapore. They have to be very senior or with a specific skill-set.”
Plus, if you leave Hong Kong you might be shocked by the alternative. Hong Kong students living in the UK are alarmed by the country’s more relaxed approach to COVID, and the absence of contact tracing and loose enforcement of isolation rules.
Meanwhile, the quarantine laws may come under further strain, with cases of both Delta and Omicron reported in Hong Kong on Sunday. As long as Hong Kong pursues its zero-covid policy, three-week stays in austere government quarantine facilities like Penny Bay will continue to be the norm. “You realize when you’ve been stuck here for 18 months that Hong Kong is actually quite a small place,” the banker told eFC.
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