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12 May, 2019 11:21:25 AM

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Asia’s pollution exodus: Firms struggle to woo top talent

From Thailand, to South Korea and India, polluted air has suffocated some of Asia's largest cities, pushing authorities to step up measures to fight smog and protect their people from harmful particles entering the human body
Prof. Sarwar Md. Saifullah Khaled
Asia’s pollution exodus: Firms struggle to woo top talent

In a desperate bid to lure executives to the Asian region where toxic air engulfs major cities for much of the year, the region’s businesses are promising increasingly inventive perks – from smog breaks to pollution bonuses. Health concerns are putting off those initially attracted by Asia’s growing economic opportunities.

So the firms are struggling to recruit – and retain – people with the expertise they need. Some 92 percent of people in the Asia-Pacific region are exposed to levels of air pollution that pose a significant risk to health. This means that on top of large salaries, businesses have to offer extra incentives, said the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). Asia director for consultancy Employment Conditions Abroad International (ECAI) Lee Quane, said the incentives include paying for smog breaks every few months, or allowing non-traditional working arrangements so that people can commute from less polluted areas.
Quane says that at “a location with a higher level of pollution, you’re likely to see us recommend allowances of anywhere between 10 to 20 percent of the person’s base salary”. This estimate would also incorporate factors such as crime rates and access to services. The estimate was derived from a rating system his firm uses to help companies decide appropriate financial compensation for relocation. Other provisions include better insulated apartments, air purifiers for home and office, breathing masks and regular medical check-ups that employees could expect for moving to a highly polluted area. Quane said that “If you look at the cost associated with even those smaller things…you’re probably looking at a minimum cost, on an annual basis, of maybe US $5,000 to US $10,000 a year”, with location allowances an additional expense.

Panasonic confirmed that it offered in 2014 a “pollution premium” for those working for the company in China, while Coca Cola was offering an environmental hardship allowance of around 15 percent for employees moving there. China has since taken measures to improve its air quality. But Beijing – along with other key urban centres in South Asia including New Delhi and Dhaka – routinely exceeds World Health Organisation (WHO) safe limits for air pollution. In consequence, these places are seeing a “reduction in calibre” of employees. As per Quane, this is because there firms are forced to opt for people who are less qualified. From Shanghai, Patrick Behar-Courtois, who ran an organisational behaviour consulting firm for more than a decade, agrees.

Behar-Courtois said that “generous financial offers” were not enough to offset the pollution concerns of the highly skilled people he wanted to recruit. He basically had to revise his hiring policies and look for people locally available. So obviously it means that he got profiles that were less experienced and he had to spend more time training them. However attractive the job offer may be the executives with families are often unwilling to put their children’s health at risk. WHO experts have repeatedly warned that the very young are particularly vulnerable to air pollution; and they could face a lifetime of illness because of it. In China Eddy Tiftik built his career and held a senior position at one of the world’s largest real-estate developers. Afterwards felt that he had to leave the place for his family’s wellbeing. Because of Beijing’s very high levels of pollution, Tiftik’s then-five-year-old son was constantly unwell with asthma. He tells that he literally would spend three weeks out of a month going back and forth from the hospital.

Making India an appealing career option, the country has one of the world’s fastest growing economies. But as per a recent report by Greenpeace and IQ Air Visual, India is also home to seven of the most polluted cities. All senior executives want to have India experience on their CVs. However, the managing partner of Transearch, a global recruitment firm there, Atul Vohra, said that there is a fear of pollution related health issues. Such concerns are not just an issue for experts, but Indians are also turning down work in areas of the country with severe smog. For many the rewards are simply not worth the risks. Behar-Courtois recently left Shanghai, which has seen its air quality deteriorate in the past few years, after his wife developed thyroid issues he believes are linked to the smog. He reveals that in the last three to five years, he has seen a lot of people, especially with kids, who basically chose to put an end to their career here and move. He now works as a professor in the southern Chinese city of Zhuhai, where the air is cleaner.  Tiftik says his son’s symptoms abruptly stopped after the family moved to Bangkok. True Bangkok also has air quality problems of its own, but it is far less severe than Beijing. If pollution worsens, he said, he would consider leaving the continent altogether, even though his Mandarin skills give him an edge in the Asian market. He considers that although his career is very important, but his family’s health is more important. It is also mentionable that air pollution in Dhaka, the capital city of Bangladesh, is also becoming unbearably worse day by day and as a result the city dwellers are falling ill because of that.     

The writer is a retired Professor of Economics, BCS General Education Cadre

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Editor : M. Shamsur Rahman
Published by the Editor on behalf of Independent Publications Limited at Media Printers, 446/H, Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1215.
Editorial, News & Commercial Offices : Beximco Media Complex, 149-150 Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1208, Bangladesh. GPO Box No. 934, Dhaka-1000.

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