While the daily lives of wealthy employees working at investment banks’ head offices in Hong Kong have been comparatively unaffected by the ongoing protests sweeping the city, spare a thought for those lower down the banking pay table: retail staff at Chinese banks.
Some retail employees at Bank of China, ICBC, CITIC, and Bank of Communications were unable to work as planned on Saturday as their firms collectively closed hundreds of branches because of fears that protesters would target them. These concerns were well founded. Several Bank of China branches were vandalised over the long weekend and five could not reopen on Tuesday because of fire damage, reports the South China Morning Post. Similarly, ICBC, kept four “seriously damaged” branches closed yesterday.
Employees who’ve experienced the trauma of their workplaces being shuttered and/or vandalised, may be wishing they weren’t working in retail branches. Staff based in the high-rise towers of investment banks in Hong Kong have told us that they’ve only suffered only minor inconveniences to their personal and professional lives since the anti-government protests kicked off in June. The attack on a JP Morgan private banker outside his firm’s Chater House office on Friday was an exception to the rule, not part of a trend.
Investment banking staff say they are not yet concerned for their own safety because they can usually avoid getting too close to gatherings of protestors and police, and bankers typically live in affluent outlying areas (such as Discovery Bay) that aren’t near flashpoints of urban unrest.
One trader says that on weekdays he’s not experiencing “any problems at all” in his working life. “I wouldn’t know the protests are happening aside from reading about them, especially in the Western media,” he adds, stressing that he’s not trying to downplay the significance of Hong Kong’s political crisis or its devastating effect on sectors such as tourism. “On weekends, we just don’t go out in Central or places were the protests happen, which isn’t that big a deal,” he adds.
Another banking professional says even though clashes between police and protestors have become more violent in recent weeks, he has not become worried about his safety or that of his family. Head-office banking professionals who aren’t themselves taking part in the demonstrations don’t appear to fear being accidentally caught up in any violence – unless they speak out in public, as was the case with the JPM banker.
An IT banking professional, who like the other people we spoke with asked not to be named, says he still feels “safe walking around the vast majority of places in Hong Kong” and points out that Hong Kong has traditionally enjoyed lower levels of violent crime than many other large cities. Before the protests began, Hong Kong’s crime rate fell to a 48-year low in 2018. Still, he says he feels “shackled at times” as he has to avoid areas of unrest.
While personal safety seems not to be a major concern as yet, bank employees are occasionally having to rearrange their working days when the protests cause shutdowns or delays on the MTR. Banks have become more flexible in letting staff work from home as a result. “Half my colleagues had to work from home on Tuesday as the MTR wasn't running properly,” says the technologist.
A fourth person we spoke with says his suburban school-run is still smooth, but traffic is terrible when he drives into his office in Central because more people have hit the roads since MTR services have become sporadically disrupted. Like other finance professionals, his social life has also been curtailed. “Various shows and events have been cancelled, and popular locations like Wan Chai and Causeway Bay have been heavily hit, so we’re not going out to dinner there,” he says. “If you do this, it’s unlikely you’ll be caught up in the protests.”
The finance professionals say they are lucky that the unrest in Hong Kong hasn’t affected them in a significant way, and they all hope that the crisis will be resolved peacefully in the near future.
Image credit: baona, Getty
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