Coronavirus: Asia firms with China staff coping despite travel curbs

A medical staff member collecting a sample from a Chinese paramilitary police officer for coronavirus testing on Tuesday after his return from a holiday in Shenzhen, in China's southern Guangdong province.
A medical staff member collecting a sample from a Chinese paramilitary police officer for coronavirus testing on Tuesday after his return from a holiday in Shenzhen, in China's southern Guangdong province.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Local workers pick up the slack for colleagues left stranded in China

Vietnam Lee & Man Paper Manufacturing, which makes packaging paper in the south of the country, gave an extended break this year to 16 Chinese employees who had returned home for the recent Chinese New Year holiday.

With Hanoi cancelling flights and trains to China and imposing a 14-day quarantine for anyone entering Vietnam from China to contain the spread of the coronavirus, it is tricky to ask the workers to come back.

"They are waiting to be notified by the company about when they can come back to work," said the company's administration manager Chung Wai Fu.

The situation has left the firm short of technical specialists and managers. "We mobilised healthy employees to work overtime, with increased overtime payment, to maintain production and provide enough products for our market. At the same time, we are trying remote-working arrangements, like discussions by e-mail, messages and video calls to solve issues arising in the factory."

Fortunately, he said, local workers had picked up the slack.

For now, companies around the region that hire Chinese nationals are coping, a Straits Times check found. Amid widespread travel restrictions, many are getting others to step in for their Chinese colleagues stranded at home.

In Indonesia, which has halted the entry of Chinese workers since Feb 4 and stopped issuing new work permits for Chinese workers, nickel production by Chinese company Tsinghan is carrying on as usual.

Dozens of Chinese workers did not return to work after the Chinese New Year holiday. In fact, no new or returning Chinese workers have joined since Jan 25.

"There has been no disruption so far because we have rotated workers to fill the positions left (by the Chinese workers)," said Mr Dedy Kurniawan, spokesman for Indonesia Morowali Industrial Park - Indonesia's biggest nickel industrial park - which employs 5,400 Chinese workers.

 
 
 
 

The Indonesian Manpower Ministry's acting director-general for manpower placement Aris Wahyudi, said, however, that Chinese workers whose work permits had been processed and approved prior to Feb 4 would still be allowed to enter Indonesia.

But the companies understood the need for the temporary ban, and the policy could be reviewed later, he told The Straits Times.

No one can say if business can continue as usual if the curbs stretch indefinitely, because of the large number of Chinese nationals working in the region.

Some 33,800 Chinese workers are legally permitted to work in Vietnam, and 26,388 had returned to China for the Chinese New Year.

In Indonesia, there were 40,357 Chinese workers with work permits as of Feb 3, mostly in its service sector.

Meanwhile, 13,305 Chinese nationals held work passes in Malaysia as of May last year.

The Malaysian authorities have advised firms involved in the Chinese-backed East Coast Rail Link project to give leave of absence to Chinese staff currently in China.

In the Philippines, some 200,000 Chinese typically work in its booming offshore gaming industry. For now, they can go back to China, but will be quarantined for 10 days upon their return to the Philippines.

The Philippines earns about US$4.1 billion (S$5.7 billion) each year from Chinese-operated online gaming firms, which have so far weathered the curbs.

Hong Kong has more than one million mainland Chinese who live and work in the territory, many of whom are students or employed in the city's finance sector.

In Japan, Chinese form the largest group of foreigners, with 267,959 holding permanent residency.

Meanwhile, some sectors in Australia have been affected by travel restrictions. Some meat processors which rely on large contingents of Chinese workers have slowed their processing.

There were 4,150 Chinese workers in Australia on temporary skilled visas last year.

Companies remain hopeful that the logjam caused by travel restrictions would ease soon.

Mr Chung from Vietnam Lee & Man Paper Manufacturing said: "We believe these difficulties will end shortly, and we will overcome them together."

• Additional reporting by Raul Dancel, Jonathan Pearlman, Claire Huang, Walter Sim, Nadirah H. Rodzi

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 15, 2020, with the headline 'Asia firms with China staff coping despite travel curbs'. Print Edition | Subscribe