A recent Santa Fe report begins with a quote from Heraclitus, the Greek philosopher:
“Change is the only constant in life.”
It is a good maxim to remember these days, as the report goes on to reveal that a key worry for global mobility professionals is achieving compliance and supporting organizational growth in a world that is constantly changing.
We know that our industry is subject to rapid digitization and that new working practices appear all the time. But geo-political uncertainty remains a constant – and yet unpredictable – problem.
How do we move forward when the world is changing around us? We look at five key areas of unpredictability that affect global mobility planning.
1. The changing status of states
A key factor in companies’ ability to (and willingness to) send assignees overseas is the legal, economic and tax relationships that exist between the assignee’s mother country and their host nation. Visas and work permits need to be applied for and the rules can change quickly.
The UAE, for example, issued new, modernized visa laws in October 2018, which make visa renewal for expats easier (they don’t have to leave the country first), and relaxes visa requirements for widows, divorcees and students. The USA, by contrast, is in the midst of a well-documented shift in the other direction, scrutinising incoming assignees more closely than ever. Meanwhile, tariffs against imports into the USA are straining economic relationships with other countries and may put a curb on global mobility.
Lately, the most pressing case of uncertainty has been caused by Brexit. This would mean that sending UK assignees to Europe and vice-versa is not covered by the ‘freedom of movement’ principle, which waives the requirements for working permits between member states. But exactly which principles and laws will apply has yet to be agreed at the time of writing.
Over two years ago, this blog reported on Brexit and, at the time, we recommended a ‘wait-and-see’ approach because negotiations had only just started and, just like everybody else, we were waiting for the picture to clear. We are still waiting, and the advice remains the same.
2. Spontaneous economic combustion
While countries have different legal approaches to immigration and work permits, these are usually quite deliberate and driven by the political attitudes at large. When a country’s economy starts to point south, however, there are a whole set of different problems.
Venezuela has the world’s largest crude oil reserves. But despite these riches, it is currently in an economic tail spin: the IMF calculated inflation in 2018 at an incredible 929,797%. The impact on the country’s population is terrible – and any companies seeking to do business there are taking a big risk.
This is in addition to the personal risks undertaken by expats trying to make a home in a country without effective government, sanitation or utilities.
Economic fluctuations are rarely this extreme, but it is an example of how quickly things can change, and how global mobility needs to keep an eye on the economic health of the destination countries.
3. Personal security in times of unrest
The world can be a violent place. As mentioned earlier, expats fear for their personal safety in places made temporarily lawless through economic turmoil. But there are also places where overall crime rates are frighteningly high. In such cases, expats need to take appropriate precautions to stay safe – and global mobility professionals must do likewise to stay compliant.
The website numbeo.com publishes a Crime Index: a useful list of the world’s key expat destinations in descending order of risk of violent crime. It confirms that South Africa is a place where expats shouldn’t be walking alone after dark (Pretoria has a rating of 80.39), whereas Quebec City (14.72) is a place where you can probably walk anywhere at any time.
And then there is the risk of political upheaval, often accompanied by armed conflict. As two (or more) sides battle for supremacy, expats can be metaphorically – or sometimes literally – caught in the crossfire. In countries that are known to be politically volatile – or where other risks such as terrorist attack are more likely – companies will often employ specialists to either protect assignees or airlift them to safety when required. An expensive option, but sometimes necessary.
Global mobility departments need to keep their eyes on simmering conflicts and international crises. Whether it is North Korean nuclear testing, the Jerusalem powder keg, the Rohingya Crisis, or the ongoing hostility between Russia and the Ukraine, there is plenty to look out for...
4. Intolerance in the extreme
Declarations earlier this year by Hassanal Bolkiah, the Sultan of Brunei, was a shocking reminder to the world of the danger of intolerance. His desire to see “Islamic teachings in this country grow stronger” has resulted in draconian new laws coming into force. Many countries are intolerant of LGBTQ attitudes, but Brunei really isn’t a place for gay expats: they risk government-sanctioned death by stoning.
Global mobility departments are aware of the importance of conforming to cultural norms. Assignees are advised of different working practices and schooled in the cultural differences they will need to observe. But as Brunei’s recent announcement has shown, things can change quickly.
5. Getting back to nature
Although man is a destructive beast, he is not responsible for all global unrest. Natural disasters are as unpredictable as they are devastating – and of course they frequently have severe economic repercussions.
As humans, we are appalled at the suffering and loss caused by events such as Cyclone Idai in Mozambique in March 2019; but as professionals we also need to bear in mind the likelihood of such events, and the contingency measures needed to deliver personal safety to those who work in such places.
Who has all the answers?
As sure as the world keeps turning, it will keep changing. Our industry is changing anyway, with increasing digitization and the advent of new innovative working practices. But on top of that, countries, governments, people, even weather patterns will throw up something new every year and we need to be prepared.
Global mobility professionals are responsible for ensuring compliance with changing international and local regulations – and providing duty of care towards expats. The best approach is to seek advice from those with local knowledge. Experienced relocation experts not only help to manage the physical business of relocating assignees and their belongings. An understanding of risk management is now a key part of the FAIM certification, which ensures that FAIM-qualified relocation partners can help you to mitigate risk and ensure compliance – whatever the world may throw at you.