As Protests Rage, Hong Kong Banks Encourage Their Staff to Stay Home

November 13, 2019, 12:56 PM UTC

Citigroup Inc. warned Hong Kong staff to avoid illegal gatherings after police grabbed one of its investment bankers off a sidewalk. As protests raged, firms across the city urged workers to consider staying home to ensure their families’ safety.

On a conference call Wednesday, Citigroup told personnel to steer clear of escalating clashes between protesters and police, people familiar with the situation said, asking not to be named because the matter is private. One of its bankers is the person seen in a video that has circulated widely on social media, according to the people.

It shows a trio of officers surrounding a man in a covered walkway. He tries to break away, at one point grabbing and swinging one of their batons as they wrestle him to the ground. As officers pile onto the man, a voice — possibly his — can be heard shouting “Hong Kong people, resist!”

“We are aware of this incident and are investigating further,” said James Griffiths, a spokesman for the New York-based lender. “While investigations continue it would be inappropriate to comment further. We expect all our employees to abide by the law.”

In a flurry of safety memos — which have become a part of daily life at big banks in the Asian financial hub — executives at a number of firms expressed a heightened level of caution heading into Wednesday after skirmishes repeatedly erupted in the streets during work hours this week, sometimes directly outside office doors.

“Where meetings are already planned, managers should not hesitate to cancel and reschedule depending on the evolution of the situation,” BNP Paribas SA told employees. Standard Chartered Plc also advised staff to reschedule meetings and travel as appropriate, a Hong Kong-based spokeswoman said in an email.

At JPMorgan Chase & Co.’s main Hong Kong offices, where some of this weeks’ biggest clashes between pro-democracy protesters and police have taken place just steps away, employees were reminded to feel empowered to make arrangements “in circumstances that require flexibility (e.g. family needs, school closures, transport issues.)”

“I wanted to make sure that it was well understood given the circumstances,” Filippo Gori, the New York-based bank’s chief executive officer of Hong Kong operations, wrote in the memo. “Thank you for pulling together and supporting each other, and our clients, during what has been a difficult period in the city.”

Firms are trying to operate normally despite intensifying demonstrations since a student died Friday of injuries sustained near a protest. The main challenge for many bankers and traders is simply getting to work, as protesters impede rush-hour traffic, closing subway stations and halting bus lines. Those who made it in have faced tear gas on streets at lunch and another challenge getting home.

Then on Wednesday afternoon, the government announced for the first time that it would close public schools.

HSBC Holdings Plc encouraged employees to work remotely if possible and to stay in touch with managers — a message echoed by others.

“All staff should exercise due care while commuting, remain vigilant of their surroundings and check travel plans before leaving for the office,” Deutsche Bank AG told employees in a text message.

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