Duty of care: Looking after the new mobile workforce in China


Companies have a responsibility to provide duty of care solutions for this new mobile workforce, this should be extended to all staff.The global nature of business today has resulted in an increased demand for mobility from employees across all sectors. Harold Pradal, general manager of International SOS in China says, it isn’t just the responsible thing to do, it also helps companies to retain staff, build a solid corporate reputation and avoid costly outlays.

I recently had the pleasure of participating in the European Chamber’s 2014 Human Capital Conference in Beijing, where one of the major topics was global mobility. Interest in this topic is not limited to the human resources (HR) community, though: the changing, more complex face of global mobility, and its ramifications on corporations, makes it of interest to the wider business world. A 2006 study[1] found that at that time, the overall, average annual investment in international assignments was USD 311,000, so it’s easy to understand why companies take mobility policies so seriously.

A separate 2014 report by PwC[2] found that international assignees have increased by 25 per cent over the last decade, and will continue to grow by a further 50 per cent by 2020. Additionally, 71 per cent of the millennial generation say they want and expect an overseas assignment during their career, indicating that there will be a further acceleration in growth of international assignees around the globe in the future. But is it fair to say that mobility is diversifying?

Most global companies will say they have experienced a change in the make-up of their mobile workforce and PwC’s 2014 report supports this insight. Expats and the mobile workforce are no longer made up of middle-aged men from the developed world. The number of female assignees across the globe has doubled over the last decade, and expats now come from a huge variety of backgrounds and nations. Mobile talent from emerging markets is in increasing demand from multinational corporations, both in their domestic markets and across the globe. This factor is driving both the diversity of mobility and the localisation that has been apparent in some markets in China. Companies and organisations are being compelled to align their HR policies with these changes.

One of the most crucial areas within any organisation’s policies are those related to health and safety as they are essential in building trust and maintaining reputation. The issue of health and safety of the mobile workforce is becoming an increasing concern as organisations increasingly send their people to places of higher risk where the business opportunities lie. Although China is not the most risky place on earth—especially when compared to places in Africa where the nearest medical help of any standard could be hours away—risks are present, especially for the mobile workforce. Just crossing the road can be a challenge for someone new or inexperienced in China – the Global Road Safety Partnership, an organisation that International SOS works closely with, has stated that China, along with India, has the world’s most dangerous roads. One report from the China Daily even suggested that there were as many as 300 deaths per day on China’s roads – a staggering and terrifying statistic for both expats and locals alike.

Additionally, with PM2.5 levels regularly exceeding 500 in Beijing over the winter period, companies are faced with the challenge of how to make their workforce feel comfortable and safe when on assignment. Having solid duty of care practices is the essential component in this, and this point is especially salient in China – an InterNations survey found that only 14 per cent of expats are happy with their life abroad compared to the global average of 21 per cent. It is not too much of a stretch to imagine that air pollution and traffic issues are big contributors to this. You are most vulnerable when away from your home and in a different environment, especially one where the language is totally different, you are unaccustomed to the culture and in the event of an emergency you have no idea how to respond. Therefore, it is critical that companies take responsibility for employees on assignments abroad, as well as their dependents. Only by applying a stringent health and safety net is this possible.

Should these safety nets only be reserved for expatriates and business travellers, though? What about local staff? After all, they have to walk on the same roads and breathe the same air. Duty of Care principles need to go beyond the mobile workforce and include all employees. Excellent practical examples of this are annual health checks and first aid training – simple measures that can go a long way to making staff feel assured that their company is taking responsibility for their wellbeing.

Historically, duty of care has been taken seriously by energy companies—oil and gas—simply because of the challenging environments that they operate in. International SOS has been privileged to drive this agenda alongside these companies for the last 30 years across the globe. We are delighted that over the last decade these initiatives have trickled down to other corporations and Chinese companies who increasingly see the need for a wide-reaching duty of care policy.

Why is duty of care important, and what are the implications? First, it is part of organisations’ corporate social responsibility to take care of their people. But beyond this, applying a duty of care solution for a more diverse and localised workforce is a sure-fire way of retaining staff. It also helps to build and maintain the kind of employer reputation that all companies strive for. A firm duty of care policy can also have a major financial impact on a company. The costs of a failed assignment can be significant – the most recent estimates are between USD 570,000 and USD 950,000, a figure that would not slip under the carpet at any company.

Operating in China since 1989, International SOS provides both international and Chinese organisations with a range of services and solutions to help mitigate medical and travel security risks to their people. Our 24/7 assistance services, clinics, on-the-ground medical services and managed healthcare solutions are linked to our global network to assist our clients in achieving their duty of care.

[1] Measuring the value of international assignments, PriceWaterhouseCoopers & Cranfield School of Management, 2006, <http://www.pwc.fi/fi_FI/fi/palvelut/tiedostot/pwc_measuring_the_value.pdf>.