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Coronavirus

Hong Kong staff at Chinese banks pressured to take COVID test

Beijing-funded citywide voluntary program sparks concern over DNA privacy

A medical professional at a COVID-19 testing center in Hong Kong on Sept. 1. As of Wednesday night, less than 10% of the city's 7.5 million residents had registered for the free test.   © Reuters

HONG KONG -- Chinese banks and financial institutions in Hong Kong are urging their employees to participate in a Beijing-sponsored voluntary coronavirus testing program, with a least one brokerage firm going so far as requiring its staffers to submit their test results to the company.

The demand by the brokerage company reflects the growing pressure faced by white-collar workers employed by state-backed companies to support Beijing authorities' policies in the former British colony. Prior to the adoption of the city's national security law on June 30, Chinese companies operating in Hong Kong had also asked employees to sign a petition in support of the controversial legislation.

CLSA, Bank of China's Hong Kong unit, China International Capital Corp., Haitong International, Industrial & Commercial Bank of China's local operations and Founder Securities are among companies that have "encouraged" their employees to take the tests, according to people familiar with the matter and who spoke with Nikkei on condition of anonymity.

"Early on Monday, we received a companywide communique extolling the importance and the usefulness of the COVID-19 tests, and we were encouraged to register as soon as possible," one CICC employee in Hong Kong said.

"While the email did mention the tests were voluntary, we were told we can go during office hours to get tested. Some department heads were openly asking their team members to go," the employee said.

A swab sample is collected from a man in Hong Kong. Medical experts say the low turnout for the voluntary program will undermine the effectiveness of the mass testing plan.   © Reuters

Employees at ICBC shared similar experiences.

"We were encouraged to go and get tested," an employee at ICBC said. "We were told conquering the pandemic was very important and senior management expected our cooperation." The employee also said that staff were allowed to undertake the tests during office hours.

Bank of China made the same arrangements for its staff in Hong Kong, according to two employees of the company. Staffers at CLSA and Haitong International also received messages from their department heads, saying that all employees are "encouraged" to take the tests.

Meanwhile, Founder Securities has drawn criticism from a labor union for forcing its staff to take part in the voluntary testing plan. The brokerage firm has required all employees to present their test results to the company's human resources department, according to the Hong Kong Financial Industry Employees General Union.

The union denounced the move in an open letter posted on its Facebook page, saying that employees should get tested at their own discretion. The union also said the company did not address what consequences Founder Securities employees would face if they fail to submit their test results.

"We are closely observing the situation and we encourage everyone in the industry to contact us for help if they receive unreasonable demands from their companies," said Kwok Ka-wing, chairman of the union.

Representatives of CLSA and CICC declined to comment. ICBC and Founder Securities did not respond to emails seeking comment.

A spokeswoman for Haitong International said as far as she knows there had not been any "mass communication to our employees on encouraging them to take the test. We suggest following the instructions given by HKSAR that it is a voluntary behavior for any Hong Kong residents to take the test or not," she said, referring to the territory by its official name, the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region.

Bank of China Hong Kong "attaches great importance to the health and safety of its employees," an emailed statement from the lender said. "We are also committed to supporting the community efforts in fighting against the epidemic. We, therefore, encourage and support employees to participate in the voluntary Universal Community Testing Programme," it said.

"To facilitate staff participation, employees who opt to take the test may arrange it during office hours as needed," the statement said.

The seven-day testing plan began on Tuesday -- backed by Beijing authorities and Chinese labs -- has raised privacy concerns over the handling of Hong Kong citizens' DNA data, despite repeated government reassurances that genetic data will not be sent to mainland China nor used for purposes other than coronavirus tracing.

As of Wednesday night, less than 10% of the city's 7.5 million residents had registered for the free test amid doubts over privacy, reliability and safety of the test. Medical experts said the low turnout will undermine the effectiveness of the mass testing plan.

"Although some native Hong Kong staffers, including myself, insisted on not joining the mass testing, many colleagues have posted photos of them taking the test on social media to show that they are 'the good students'," an employee at Haitong International said.

According to a recent report in the Financial Times, investment bankers employed by mainland Chinese firms in the city are on track to outnumber those hired by international banks -- a trend that underscores Beijing's increasing influence in the financial hub.

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