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Expats rush in to Hong Kong to escape Euro-woes

The number of expats arriving to take up jobs in Hong Kong from countries such as Spain and Ireland is soaring as European economies struggle

Europe’s economic troubles are washing up on Hong Kong’s shores in the form of a surge in migrants from the continent coming to the city to work.

Government figures show there was a nearly 12 per cent increase from 2010 to 2011 in the number of work visas issued to people from seven European Union countries: Spain, Italy, Ireland, Britain, France, Greece and Portugal. The total reached 6,168 last year, up from 5,513 in 2010.

The increase in Spanish and Irish people gaining work visas was especially marked. The Spanish figures have doubled since 2008 and the Irish since 2009.

Hong Kong has one of the lowest unemployment figures in the world. As of June, the jobless rate was 3.2 per cent, against 10.3 per cent for the European Union as a whole and 24.6 per cent for Spain. Spain’s figure, issued yesterday, include 53.27 per cent unemployment for those aged 16 to 24.

Visas issued to Spaniards jumped to 189 last year from 96 in 2008, according to the Immigration Department. In the first half of this year, 119 applications were approved. Visas issued to Irish people reached 287 last year, from 143 in 2009.

The number of Italian applicants jumped 55 per cent in the same period, while French applicants shot up by 71 per cent.

Besides work visas, migrants can also become Hong Kong residents by obtaining an investment visa to set up a business. As a whole, the French community in Hong Kong grew by 60 per cent between 2008 and 2011 and is the biggest in Asia.

William Fitchett, 28, is part of the exodus from Spain. He works for a Spanish bank in Hong Kong through a programme of the Spanish Institute for Foreign Trade.

Fitchett, who holds a bachelor’s degree in economics and a master’s degree in international trade, lived in Shanghai for 15 months before moving to Hong Kong in January. He chose Hong Kong because he “likes the city and the company”, he said.

“Some people are just waiting [for the economy to get better] in Spain. They do master’s degree after master’s degree,” he said, but that was not enough: “They have to move.”

Fitchett, from Madrid, said an increasing number of young Spaniards were moving to China. “You can earn double or triple wages in Shanghai, because all you can find in Spain is perhaps an internship which pays you 500 euros [HK$4,700].”

Although Fitchett recognises that Hong Kong is a better place to live in for a foreigner, he said he would consider moving back to Shanghai because of the less intense job market competition there. Another factor that puts him off Hong Kong is the high rent. He is paying HK$9,200 a month for a 200 sq ft subdivided flat in Wan Chai.

Christopher Auckland, regional director of recruitment with the firm Michael Page, said the company had not noticed an increase in applications from Europe, but there was “definitely an increase in people who want to move here”.

The increased number of applications from Spain “doesn’t surprise me, because obviously the Spanish economy is not doing particularly well”, Auckland said. “Certainly a lot of people in Europe now want to move to Hong Kong and Asia.”

Auckland said the surge in expatriates seeking work in the city would create healthy competition in the job market rather than a threat to local people. “Hong Kong has an incredibly competitive job market regardless of expatriates,” he said. “There’s a strong talent pool here.”

He said many expats in the city worked in companies based in their home countries and came to the city through internal transfers. Some teach languages in Hong Kong.

Expats would tend to stay in Hong Kong for longer periods nowadays, because of the depressed economy in their home countries, Auckland said.

Most work visa holders in Hong Kong work as administrators, managers and executives, according to Immigration Department figures.

The city’s labour laws require an applicant to have a good educational background or possess specific professional skills and there must be a genuine job vacancy.

A talent shortage survey released earlier this year by Manpower Group shows 35 per cent of Hong Kong employers have difficulty filling jobs, about the same as the global average of 34 per cent. Employers say the most difficult workers to find are engineers and sales representatives.

Hong Kong issued 30,557 visas last year under the general employment policy, which excludes mainlanders, domestic helpers and certain schemes for labourers and graduates.

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