Fresh from axing 5,300 jobs in Hong Kong, Cathay Pacific Airways said its employment of foreign pilots was under “greater scrutiny” from immigration authorities, and expats were facing difficulties obtaining and renewing work visas, the Post can reveal.
Aviation insiders said the struggles for pilots in obtaining or renewing work permits to fly for the airline was leaving their jobs in limbo, and risked hampering Cathay’s operations, especially with freighter pilots being hired in preparation to move coronavirus vaccines around the world.
They also warned that by creating hurdles for expat pilots, officials risked hurting the city’s economy, and going against their promise of cherishing Hong Kong’s status as an international aviation hub.
Airline employees, affected or with knowledge of the situation, said the problems started after the airline cut more than 5,000 jobs, and scrapped regional brand Cathay Dragon, in October, subsequently leaving hundreds of local pilots looking for work.
Work visas are issued under strict criteria, including that a job could not be performed by a Hongkonger. The issues pilots faced were not thought to be linked to the current political climate.
In a memo to pilots last week, Chris Kempis, Cathay’s director of flight operations, said the carrier was aware that the “Immigration Department is reviewing renewals with greater scrutiny”.
Kempis said the airline was “in active dialogue with the appropriate decision makers” at the department, and acknowledged the sudden events had caused “a degree of anxiety among those affected” and pledged to update staff as soon as more information was available.
The Post is aware of several pilots, at the company and its subsidiaries, who were being given short-term renewals of up to three months only, instead of two- or three-year visa renewals.
A person who did not wish to be identified, given the sensitivity of the issue, said the government was “singling out expats in not renewing their work visa”.
A Cathay Pacific spokeswoman said the company was “communicating and responding” to any questions the department had about visa renewals.
In a note to its 2,200 members, the Hong Kong Airline Pilots Association said it had been made aware “by a few members, that the Hong Kong Immigration Department has made the decision to no longer renew work permits for aircrew at this time”.
Hong Kong’s immigration policy says foreign nationals can be hired under a General Employment Policy (GEP) which includes criteria such as a genuine job vacancy, a confirmed offer of employment, and the work cannot be “readily taken up by the local workforce”.
Asked to comment on the situation, a spokesman for the Immigration Department said: “In general, applications for extension of stay for persons admitted into Hong Kong for employment under the GEP will be considered if the applicant continues to meet the relevant eligibility criteria.
“In handling each application, the Immigration Department will consider the circumstances of the case and act in accordance with the laws and immigration policies.”
Cathay faced a similar problem in 2012 in securing work visas for pilots overseas, according to one who was affected at the time and spoke on condition of anonymity.
Former Cathay pilot Jeremy Tam Man-ho, who resigned as an opposition lawmaker last month, has been vocal in urging the Immigration Department to clarify the rules, and show fairness in renewing expat work visas amid a sudden availability of local talent in the workforce.
“If you look at the work visa regulations and rules, it is clear the employer must demonstrate the particular talent [role] cannot be filled by the local workforce,” he said.
“It is an issue of the work permit, when you do the renewal, that condition is still valid … [It’s] not just in Hong Kong, anywhere in the world, you try to protect the local workforce first.”
The Civic Party vice-chairman estimated hundreds of pilots could be affected now and in the coming months.
Critics believed that with greater scrutiny, Cathay could be forced to hire more local pilots, a problem the airline should have foreseen.
But a senior airline source warned that replacing expats with their local counterparts would still require training and add cost, and there might not necessarily be the right type of skilled pilot to fly specific Boeing or Airbus aircraft.
“The impact is not about the visa, it is about holding up the economy of Hong Kong and not hurting Hong Kong as an aviation hub,” the source said. “And if a major airline cannot get pilots to operate a freighter, who is going to ship the vaccines to Hong Kong?”
Willis Fu Yiu-wai, marketing director and senior immigration consultant of Goldmax Associates, said: “I expect to see a negative impact on the visa renewal for those foreign workers. Based on the greater supply of workforce and lesser vacancies of job opportunities as well as protection of the locals, I expect the Immigration Department may not grant a long visa to foreigners.”
It always seems impossible until it is done.