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Asia’s pollution crisis: Firms struggle to attract and retain talent

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NEW DELHI From smog breaks to pollution bonuses, Asia's businesses are promising increasingly inventive perks in a desperate bid to lure executives to a region where toxic air engulfs major cities for much of the year.

Health concerns are putting off those initially attracted by Asia's growing economic opportunities, experts warn, so firms are struggling to recruit - and retain - people with the expertise they need.

According to the United Nations Environment Programme, some 92 per cent of people in the Asia-Pacific region are exposed to levels of air pollution that pose a significant risk to health.

This means that on top of large salaries, businesses are having to offer extra incentives.

These include paying for smog breaks every few months, or allowing non-traditional working arrangements so people can commute from less polluted areas, says Mr Lee Quane, Asia director for consultancy ECA International.

At "a location with a higher level of pollution, you're likely to see us recommend allowances of anywhere between 10 to 20 per cent of the person's base salary", he said.

This estimate, derived from a rating system his firm uses to help companies decide appropriate financial compensation for relocation, would also incorporate factors such as crime rates and access to services, he added.

Other provisions employees could expect for moving to a highly polluted area include better insulated apartments, air purifiers for home and office, breathing masks, and regular medical check-ups.

"If you look at the cost associated with even those smaller things... you're probably looking at a minimum cost, on an annual basis, of maybe US$5,000 (S$6,800) to US$10,000 a year," Mr Quane said, with location allowances an additional expense.

In 2014, Panasonic confirmed that it offered a "pollution premium" for those working for the company in China, while media reports revealed Coca Cola was offering an environmental hardship allowance of around 15 per cent for employees moving there.

China has since taken measures to improve its air quality, but Beijing - along with other key urban centres in South Asia including New Delhi - routinely exceeds World Health Organisation (WHO) safe limits for air pollution.

As a result, these places are seeing a "reduction in calibre" of employees, Mr Quane warned, arguing that firms are forced to opt for people who are less qualified.

Mr Patrick Behar-Courtois, who ran an organisational behaviour consulting firm in Shanghai for more than a decade, agreed. He said "generous financial offers" were not enough to offset the pollution concerns of the highly skilled people he wanted to recruit.

"I basically had to revise my hiring policies and look for people locally, so obviously it means that I got profiles that were less experienced and I had to spend more time training them," he said.

Executives with families are often unwilling to put their children's health at risk however attractive the job offer.

WHO experts have repeatedly warned the very young are particularly vulnerable to air pollution and could face a lifetime of illness because of it. - AFP