1603 Nam Wo Hong Building 148 Wing Lok Street Sheung Wan Hong Kong Island

Work visa delays a bane for foreigners seeking Hong Kong jobs amid Covid-19 pandemic, while national security law dents interest

  • Recruitment agencies say civil servants’ work-from-home arrangements as city battles third wave of infections the main factor for slowdown in processing
  • Others point to a general drop in visa applications because of wariness over political instability since last year’s social unrest

Meanwhile, long wait times and fewer approvals have also fuelled anxiety among those seeking to extend their work visas, while fewer applications overall have prompted speculation that the controversial new national security law is already putting a damper on interest in the city among would-be expats.

The trend also comes after months of anti-government protests, which recruitment consultants say has been a deterrent to some expatriates considering moving to the city.

Tara Joseph, president of the American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong (AmCham), told the Post that Covid-19 and the recession were huge factors leading to fewer people coming into the city to begin with.

“So it would not make sense for companies to bring new employees into Hong Kong [at this time],” Joseph said. “It may be true that there will be less demand for visas in the medium term, but we just don’t know that for certain.”

A recent poll showed nearly four in 10 members of AmCham were considering relocating from Hong Kong due to the national security law.

Since the first wave of Covid-19 infections in January, most of the city’s 180,000 civil servants have spent weeks at a time working from home, with each attempt to resume in-office work thwarted by new flare-ups in cases. Amid the ongoing third wave of infections, civil servants have again been working from home since July 20.

Mark Francis, director of two recruitment consultancies, Silverstrand and Cleverly Search, focusing on the financial services and construction industries respectively, said it normally took three to six weeks for visas to be processed, a timeline that stretched to nine to 12 weeks in March – and the backlog still had yet to be addressed.

Another issue is the fact that a lot of documentation is still done on paper, rather than electronically, according to Francis.

“A lot these departments still have fax numbers, for instance,” he said. “So some of their processes are quite archaic, then you go to a work-from-home environment where the set-up is not optimised for the digital age. That is going to be a problem.”

Albert Lee, who co-founded the recruitment company NLS Search, said companies were changing the way they hired this year, with some choosing to put less emphasis on Hong Kong.

“Previously they wanted five to 10 roles in Hong Kong,” Lee said. “Now it might be five in Hong Kong, five in Singapore.”

Asked to comment on the situation, the Immigration Department pointed to its website, which says it normally takes four weeks to process work visas upon receipt of all the required documents.

Among the sectors with the lowest number of visas issued for the first six month of the year are legal services, down 85 per cent from last year, and technology, down 77 per cent.

Meanwhile, a number of foreign journalists have reported delays in renewing or securing visas in Hong Kong, according to the Foreign Correspondents’ Club, which issued an open letter on August 12 asking whether new procedures had been established in processing visas for foreign journalists to work in Hong Kong.

Director of Immigration Benson Kwok responded on August 14, saying: “Hong Kong has always adopted a pragmatic and open policy on the employment of professionals … each case will be considered on its own merits.”

Lee from NLS Search also said his firm had seen delays, citing an example of one client whose visa expired on Friday, but they had been unable to reach any officer that they normally dealt with regarding their extension.

“We’ve been given mixed answers … one manager told us they are not processing change-of-work visas and we can mail it in.”

The department’s website says it is only accepting urgent applications of extension of stay, requests that are down by more than half from last year. Lee said these typically took two to three weeks, but waits were now stretching up to six weeks.

One Hong Kong resident who has lived in the city for six years, and who wished to remain anonymous over concerns it would affect his application, said he had been waiting since May for his visa extension to be approved.

His company is keeping his job while he waits for his extension, but the 34-year-old German national said he was worried that if too much time passed, they might not hold the vacancy.

“I don’t know if the department will reject my application, or what the reason for that might be,” he said. “On the mainland, getting work visas is a difficult process and I do worry such thinking might apply to foreigners working in Hong Kong.”

Lee said another factor in the decline in extension-of-stay visas might be dwindling interest – some expatriates were returning to their home countries, while more candidates in Hong Kong had been telling him they only wanted to apply for roles outside the city.

Francis pointed to last year’s social unrest, the US-China trade war and Hong Kong losing various special statuses with foreign countries over the national security law as reasons for negative sentiment towards working in the city.

“Seeing statements from US government officials … that must play into people’s minds and perhaps they are not giving up on moving here, but it does delay their desire to get here quickly,” he said.

Leave a comment

59 − = 52