Expat advisers urged to factor in pollution

Expat advisers urged to factor in pollution

Mobility managers must take precautionary measures when assigning workers to highly polluted cities like Bangkok, Hong Kong and New Delhi, says Lee Quane, Asia director of ECA International.

With many parts of Thailand engulfed by a blanket of haze and pollution, expatriate employees assigned here for work are increasingly worried about their health. Mobility managers have to manage assigned employees' growing complaints around air pollution, from requests to return to their home country, to demands for financial compensation, he said.

Elsewhere in Asia, places like Hong Kong and New Delhi are also making headlines for rampant air pollution and smog. Singapore, the most liveable city for Asian expats in the past 18 years, is seeing its lead narrow because of worsening air pollution, particularly during haze. Given the pervasiveness of air pollution, it is impossible for assigned employees to evade the problem.

Most employees are not prepared to sacrifice their health in exchange for gaining overseas work experience, especially if they are relocating with children, said Mr Quane.

Knowing that pollution is more prevalent in certain countries allows mobility managers to take practical, precautionary measures. These include improving awareness about air pollution, occupational hazards, and eligibility for assistance, he said.

With air pollution in Bangkok and northern Thailand exceeding health safety levels, the Pollution Control Department has advised residents to limit outdoor activities and wear a face mask.

Mobility managers should ensure air purifiers and filters in assigned employees' offices and homes are serviced in time for haze season. Draught excluders and protective face masks should also be provided for employees, said Mr Quane.

Mobility managers should also invest in high-quality products that offer maximum protection and safeguard users from pollutants.

Mobility managers have a responsibility to inform employees of potential risks, including air pollution and consequential health risks prior to an assignment.

Ensuring employees are well prepared for handling pollution or haze will drive down early termination and assignment failure rates, thereby saving on avoidable costs.

These managers could advise employees on the causes of pollution, and when it is likely to be at its worst, such as during the regional haze season.

Employees should be educated about topics such as the Air Quality Index, including PM2.5, NO2, Respirable Particulate Matter levels, and other markers, and the potential for adverse health effects. Once educated, employees can then make fully informed decisions before they accept assignments, he said.

Assigned employees should also be given details on public and private healthcare providers and hospitals, and their associated costs and services available, said Mr Quane. Providing detailed instructions on payment and reimbursement could reassure employees their well-being is being taken care of.

Some of the most common requests from assigned employees in cities with high pollution include increased location allowances, additional home leave or short-term repatriation.

If the employee's pay package factors in a location allowance that already accounts for the impact of air pollution, mobility managers should resist requests for additional compensation during periods of poor air quality.

Rather, they should communicate that pollution levels have been adequately reflected in the employee's assignment compensation, he said.

Accommodating requests for additional home leave and temporary repatriation can also be difficult. If the employee chooses to leave once air pollution becomes a problem, it would hinder them from establishing a continued relationship with their local colleagues who remain.

Similarly, air pollution could peak for weeks, if not months, and it may not be feasible for employees to manage operations in cities like Bangkok, Beijing and New Delhi remotely during such a long period. In some cases, employees who have relocated with their family may wish for their family to leave when pollution peaks.

These are all situations employers have to consider: whether to accede to these requests and pay the associated costs, or to maintain that associated costs should be borne by the employee, courtesy of the location allowance.

Although governments across the region are working hard to improve air quality and address climate change, in the short run pollution will continue to impact the management of staff in affected countries.

Knowing where, when, and why air pollution happens would help mobility managers advise staff on the risks and precautions to take, said Mr Quane.

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