Expat hubs turn on those they once courted

Tighter visa criteria, fewer jobs and concerted govt pressure on companies to hire locally is forcing many to return home

by EMILY CADMAN, CHARLIE WELLS & FIONA MACDONALD / BLOOMBERG

TAKE a pandemic, combine it with a global recession and add a sprinkle of pent-up nationalism. For skilled foreign workers around the globe, it’s an increasingly bitter cocktail.

From financial-powerhouse Singapore to the US’ tech hubs to oil-rich Kuwait, life has gotten much tougher for workers living abroad who until recently were courted for their expertise. Tighter visa criteria, fewer jobs and concerted government pressure on companies to hire locally is forcing many to return home.

“There’s been a bit of backlash from the local population toward expats,” said William Harvey, a professor at the University of Exeter who studies talent management and migration. “It’s easier to lay off people who are not from the country.”

Mohamed Faizer is one of many who knows that first hand. In March, the Hong Kong citizen was head of security at Kuwait’s Jazeera Airways and thriving. Then, Covid hit and Faizer lost his job in the wave of cost-cutting that followed. This year, the airline was forced to slash its workforce, laying off both expats and Kuwaiti nationals.

“Everything was going so smoothly, and I was happy,” Faizer said. “Unfortunately, Covid-19 changed everything.”

Now, he’s in Hong Kong scrambling to resettle, while his wife and children remain in the Gulf. “I can’t pull them out without anything to bring them back to,” Faizer said.

There isn’t good contemporaneous data on expat movement around the globe, but snapshots from individual countries are striking.

About 100 Indians each day are registering for flights home from Singapore, India’s High Commissioner told the local press in September.

In a historic reversal, New Zealand — which is used to more citizens leaving than coming home — clocked 33,200 overseas residents returning between April and September of this year, according to official statistics. And in the year to April 2020, more Irish nationals returned home than at any point since 2007, government figures show.

Some of this movement, of course, is voluntary. The pandemic has forced many to confront whether being so far away from friends and family is really what they want. Countries like Australia, an international leader in containing the virus, have witnessed a rush of returnees who’ve decided to prioritise lifestyle over career.

The virus though has accelerated trends building before the pandemic as local angst about issues of opportunity, housing and infrastructure increased to include foreigners high on the skill chain.

US

Would-be skilled migrants to the US are in limbo.

In June, President Donald Trump signed an executive order halting access to new H1-B and H-4 visas, used by technology workers and their families, as well as L visas for intra-company transfers and most J visas for work-and study-abroad programmes.

The legality of the restrictions has been challenged in court, leaving many uncertain about their prospects. The US issued more than 900,000 visas in these categories last year, though they’ve become harder to obtain.

Trump’s move comes on the back of years of rising scrutiny over the tech industry’s use of foreign workers. Critics say some companies have abused the programme to displace American workers and have demanded major reforms to restrict access.

Singapore

Nearly 300 companies — including banks and fund managers — in the Asian financial hub are currently under government scrutiny for possibly pre-selecting foreigners for jobs or not giving Singaporeans a “fair chance”.

The government has also increased minimum salary requirements for work passes and toughened requirements for jobs to be advertised locally first. International moving companies have reported a big drop in inbound inquiries, while real estate agents have also noted rising numbers giving up fancy rental apartments to move home.

That’s despite the political turmoil in Hong Kong, which some predicted would tempt more people to move to Singapore.

Still, top officials have maintained that the country hasn’t closed its doors to top talent and just this month introduced a new visa programme to attract tech entrepreneurs and experts.

Kuwait

In oil-dependent Kuwait, skilled and unskilled foreign workers account for about 70% of its population of 4.8 million.

In June, its prime minister said he wanted that cut to 30% to support jobs for Kuwaiti citizens, as the pandemic and a slump in oil prices hit the economy. Kuwait has introduced strict new rules, including one that prohibits work permits for anyone over 60 without a university degree.

This poses a challenge for Murali Nair, 59, who moved from India to Kuwait in 1999. The computer-design engineer worked at the same oil contractor for 17 years. When new projects dried up, Nair had to leave in August and hasn’t been paid since July.

Waiting in Kerala, India, Nair said that while he wants to go back to Kuwait, the new rules mean he would only be able to stay until his next birthday.

United Arab Emirates

There are exceptions to the pushback, one of the most notable being Dubai, United Arab Emirates. As part of a plan to diversify its economy from oil, it’s been trying to encourage expats to think about the city as a longer-term destination in the hope that will lead to more investment.

As well as a programme to allow foreigners the chance to retire in the emirate, it is also introducing new rules to decriminalise alcohol and allow the cohabitation of unmarried couples.

If you are an expat in one of the above countries — or any other — experts note moving back home isn’t without its challenges. Whether you’ve got time to plan or are facing a quick relocation because of an abrupt lay-off, here are a few points you should consider:

Jobs Back Home

As a returning high-skilled expat, you can be a real asset to a local employer, said Andrew Hanson, New South Wales MD for recruiter Robert Walters. But you need to put the work in. Here are some of his tips:

• Use your network: Let old colleagues know you are returning.

Update the location on your LinkedIn profile to pop up on recruiters’ searches. If you don’t have a profile, make one.

• Research the market: Are your skills in demand? Do you need to reframe how you present yourself? Talk to a recruiter with experience working with international candidates about how you fit in.

• Salary realism: Returning home from a low-tax destination like Singapore will always be tough. And don’t expect to walk into a job with the same salary you made in London or New York, unless you have a very in-demand skill. Think about the whole package, including things like lifestyle benefits and the value of being closer to family or friends.

• On-the-ground advantage: Be aware that employers favour candidates already in the country over those still abroad. If you are set on returning, making the jump shows you are committed and not merely sitting abroad dreaming.

Financial Preparations

• Start saving now: James Ridley, head of Asia Pacific for expat financial planning specialists Atlas Wealth Management, recommends that clients save up funds to live on for between six and 12 months.

• Tax residency: In normal times, where you pay tax is pretty straightforward and based on residency. In this year of Covid — when some expats are working in third countries outside their usual postings or are sending members of their family home at different times — things can get more complicated. If your situation is at all unusual, don’t assume. And be very clear on what date your residency changes.

• Tax aware: Peter Bembrick, tax partner at advisory and accounting firm HLB Mann Judd in Sydney, says people need to be aware of more than just income tax. Think about things like stocks held overseas, any grants you have for employee share schemes, cash in the bank accounts and pensions. Your tax residency has implications in both countries — where you are leaving and where you are arriving —so make sure you are up on the details to avoid a nasty surprise.

• Real estate small print: Property is another area where being clear on your tax residency is vital. Some countries charge foreign purchases a higher rate of transaction tax or tax capital gains on profits. In Australia, for example, Bembrick says if you’ve kept property there while abroad, you might be better to move back first before selling. — Bloomberg