One of the sectors at the forefront of expat movement, Relocations Providers, have been heavily hit by the COVID-19 pandemic.
With countries closing borders, flights being grounded and expat moves being cancelled or postponed, the demand for their services has virtually dropped overnight.
In this article, we speak to a group of our Relocations providers to see how their businesses are coping, how they have adapted to the new normal and what they see in the future for the industry.
As borders closed
As the virus began to spread around the world, countries quickly moved to close borders. Initially to travellers from affected areas and then eventually to everyone apart from their citizens, permanent residents and some exceptions.
One of the first countries that borders were closed to was South Korea.
“At the beginning of COVID-19, South Korea was regarded as an unsafe country due to aggressive mass testing and case numbers,” explained Jay Yoon of High Relocation Worldwide, our Group Leader in Seoul.
“Some multinational companies made all their expats repatriate to the US where their HQ is located,” continued Jay. “Initially it was a “Freeze” on any new assignment to South Korea, which affected our business a lot.”
In other countries where the spread of the virus was still emerging the situation was a little different.
“We had situations where some expats tried to fly in, have their needs met, and then fly back to their home country. These were halted by their employers as well as increasing restrictions being placed on international travel and regional directives,” shared Nitin Badhwar of Welcomehome Relocations, our Toronto Group Leader.
“One major impact on some of our clients is that they were in the process of their relocation, came to Canada, secured housing and schooling for themselves and their families, and then returned to their home city to close out their affairs before permanently moving. They got caught in the travel bans and border closures and are now responsible for housing costs in their new destination cities, while also having similar financial burdens in their current location. Security deposits are being lost, and in some cases, they are bound by the terms of the rental agreements and are required to make payments even though they are not living in their new homes,” explained Nitin.
The month of May should be the build up towards summer moving in Singapore, but it has been the quietest month due to the lockdowns.
Charlie Scott of SIR Move Services, our Group Leader in Singapore explains, “Individuals and companies have put a hold on most moves unless it is urgent. Even if they wanted to move, they have had to reschedule due to the various versions of lockdowns in governments around the world and their definition of essential services.”
“In Singapore, most people are asking landlords to extend their lease for a few months until they can move. Viewing of houses is not essential, therefore real estate agents cannot physically show houses for lease. While e-viewing is an option, people would rather wait,” said Charlie.
Steve Wilding from Nuss Removals, our Group Leader in Sydney shares his experience, “at the start, when there was talk of borders closing, we were inundated with calls from corporate and private clients. Many corporate clients were moving their move forward so they could beat the border restrictions. Clients who had planned to move in June or July were now moving in March.”
“We had to work very quickly and often had everything booked in within 24 hours,” continued Steve. “Some private clients were quite desperate to move to be with their families and were finding it difficult to find a provider as many were either fully booked or had stopped international shipping entirely.”
“Interestingly, we are still shipping a small number of people out of Australia even now,” commented Steve.
“The inbound business, those moving to Australia, eventually slowed right down when the borders closed,” provided Steve. “We still have some shipments arriving from customers that left their origin country earlier and their shipments were already on their way, but I expect the numbers to reduce further in the coming months.”
“The fortunate thing for us is that we do local and interstate moves and with Australia reopening slowly, that side of the business should see some demand,” said Steve.
Not so in Nairobi as Cosmas Kamuyu from Nellions Moving & Relocations, our E-Team member in Nairobi explained, “we have partial lockdowns in 4 major areas of Kenya including Nairobi meaning that we cannot freely offer relocation services even within Kenya.”
“Many expats are in evacuation mode, waiting to see what happens next in Kenya while monitoring situations in their own countries,” continued Cosmos. “As a result, our international moving business is down 80%.”
High Relocation, Group Leader of our South Korea E-Team, adapting to the new norms of living with COVID19.
Finding innovative new ways to operate
“Since the curve of confirmed cases has flattened and our government starts to re-open the economy, some multinational companies are starting to recommence movement of employees,” commented Jay, Group Leader of our Seoul E-Team.
“Although we don’t have the panic buying here, we have seen the toilet paper shortage in some countries, so when we are providing an international move service for Americans we provide some freshly bought toilet paper as a courtesy which they find amusing and express gratitude,” provided Jay.
Although the pandemic has had a dramatic effect on the Relocations sector, there have been some positives as Nitin, Group Leader of our Toronto E-Team explains, “a great deal of innovation in service delivery under very unique circumstances have been created as a result of the pandemic. With the growing restrictions, servicing our clients in the traditional fashion has become almost impossible.”
Nitin continued, “we are looking at and instituting innovative ways to keep our expats and clients informed, and wherever possible, serviced. Technology is playing an even greater role now than before, and we expect it to be instrumental in how we provide services going forward.”
“One significant technology that has become a lifeline is video chats and meetings. In a very short time, we have become so dependent on technologies like Zoom and Microsoft Meetings, and it has become clear that these are very effective tools that are not only helping us stay connected and working during this crisis, but will become part of the new normal when we do get back to business as usual,” commented Nitin, “and, it may only be a foreteller of how we may “have” to adopt other technologies to help us adapt to the ongoing challenges and realities resulting from this pandemic.”
Common practices are also changing in Singapore.
“Most customers have chosen not to be present during a move and have communicated with us via WHATSAPP with instructions,” explained Charlie, Group Leader of our Singapore E-Team.
“We have had to change the way we operate to ensure we are abiding by the restrictions that have been set out by the government and to give confidence to our clients. For example, our crew take their temperature twice a day and record it so we can show clients.” Charlie continued. “The reduction of people that can be permitted on job sites means jobs can take longer and become more expensive, but we need to remain competitive and therefore look at ways to be more efficient.”
Cosmas, of our Nairobi E-Team, agrees, “Efficiency is higher because we are now getting used to doing more work within less time.”
This is echoed by Steve, Group Leader of our Sydney E-Team, “the changes such as working from home has shown companies that we can operate more efficiently.
House inspections have moved online to give expats a feel for the accommodation options.
“We anticipate a surge of demand (at least initially) once the world recovers from this both for inbound and outbound moves,” predicted Steve. “Not only from those who put their move on hold but also from expats that have been away from their families during the crisis and who haven’t been able to freely get on a flight and see their friends and family.”
Steve continued, “I think a lot of expats will re-evaluate whether they want to live away from family and friends, particularly in times of crisis. I think you may see many expats return to their home country. Then there’s the flip side of people who are in their home country who have been thinking of moving elsewhere. They may have been sitting in their home country and watching how their government has dealt with the crisis. It might be a trigger for them to actually make the move, particularly if they are considering a country that gets through this fairly well.”
Nitin anticipates a change to the industry, “our industry will be changed immeasurably, and the way we all interact will be very different. If there is one thing this pandemic has taught us, it is that we can very effectively work from home. This will shape the future dynamic of how a lot of companies might opt to operate, and may provide industries like ours with new challenges but perhaps opportunities as well.”
Cosmas expects that some changes will transcend the pandemic, “virtual/video surveys will be more preferred to physical inspections before house moving. Moving companies will get more innovative and bring in other services that could shield them better from such disruptions. Companies will require less office space. There will be a whole process of brand re-definition in terms of services and how they are provided.”
Jay sees it as a permanent marker in history, “we will face a new norm that we would previously not have imagined. There will be the world BC (before corona) and AC (after corona).”
While COVID-19 numbers are continuing to rise and many countries are still in lockdown, Governments have started to adjust their future migration and travel policies.
Russia is planning to “cut visa red tape” – to ease visa procedures for foreigners and in parallel has announced simplified Russian citizenship approval rules for many applicant categories. On the contrary, the USA has shut down its borders and announced that it will temporarily suspend approval of green cards this year except for health workers or for those who have close relatives in the USA.
Meanwhile, Governments around the world are trying to address and resolve the questions that expats face amid the lockdowns and travel restrictions. The two key issues expats are facing are extensions to their visa and issues arising if their employer ceases their employment.
1. Visa extensions for those within the country
With borders closing, often with very little notice, many expats had very little time to plan whether to stay where they were or return home. With lockdowns in place, many immigration authorities are not operating at all or functioning at a diminished capacity. In some countries, for example in the UK, special commissions have been formed to deal with expats whose visas are expiring to make sure that they can remain in the country they are in legally and until they plan their next move.
With COVID-19 classified as a force-majeure, immigration assistance is usually handled through a set of simplified procedures, often available online and free of charge. For example, in the UK, one can request a visa extension through a Coronavirus Immigration Team website. In China, the visa will be automatically extended for two months. In South Africa, one can re-apply for the same type of visa and have it extended up to 31 July 2020. In Australia, Immigration offices are assisting expats with issuing short-term tourist visas to make the overstay valid.
2. Coping with redundancy on an employer-linked visa
With a sharp drop in revenue, many businesses are struggling to survive and have to cut employees, including expats on an employer-linked visa. In New Zealand, the government is providing wage subsidies to employers so that they can retain as many employees as possible during and for weeks following the lockdown.
However, if an expat has been made redundant, with the increase of unemployment after the lockdown, they would be struggling to find a new position to extend their visa.
In Australia, the government is creating new visa types to assist those expats that have been left without a job due to the shutdowns, to find a new position in industries that have a workforce shortage.
Demand for expats in post COVID-19 world
Given the speed with which COVID-19 has ravaged the world – Governments have had to move quickly. With many increasingly looking to safeguard the health and livelihoods of their own citizens and permanent residents, the expat population in many cases was not top of mind.
As the situation progresses and as countries regain some control over the virus, issues such as visa and immigration will become more of a focus for governments – providing some certainty to expats.
It is already becoming clearer that the dislocation caused by Covid 19 will dramatically shift global supply chains in a wide variety of industries.
The silver lining for expats is that as some countries look to boost their own internal capabilities – more expats will be needed across a range of industries.
Countries that were comfortable importing key strategic goods and services will now need to develop an in-house capability and attract foreign labour to develop these domestic industries.
That could mean more movement in Expatland in the years to come.