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Market and Pandemic Are Inter-related: A Year of Pain for the Working Class

Source: Wisers      2021.01.12

The COVID-19 outbreak has dealt a heavy blow to the economy, and Hong Kong’s unemployment rate climbed to a 16-year high. What is the biggest concern of workers amidst the pandemic? Are they worried about pay cuts or layoffs? According to big data, “working from home” (WFH), which received mixed responses from workers, was one of the most hotly-discussed workplace buzzwords in the past year. 

In order to learn about netizens’ attitude toward work, the Wisers research team has searched ten groups of keywords from its big data system between 1 January and 31 December 2020, including "working from home", "pay cut", "dismissal", "unpaid leave", "part-time", "overtime work", "pay rise", "bonus/salary", "promotion" and "double pay", and detected 49,000 posts and 8.37 million engagements (the sum of comments, shares, emotional responses (emojis) and likes) from social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, major forums, YouTube, and Twitter (see the chart).

The results showed that WFH topped the buzzword chart in terms of the number of engagements and posts, accounting for 29% and 27% of the total, respectively. From the relevant posts and comments, it can be found that netizens have mixed feelings towards WFH, torn between loving it at the initial stage and hating it after being faced with various challenges later.

The team found from netizens’ comments that the words “government” and “civil servants” were among the buzzwords, mentioned 9,584 times and 3,260 times, respectively. 

Wisers' Epidemic Index 2.0 research report indicated that 20 July 2020 was another happiest day for netizens as the government announced the WFH arrangement for civil servants again on the previous day in view of a sharp increase in confirmed cases amid the third wave of COVID-19 outbreak, which aroused heated discussions among netizens. Many netizens expected the government to take the initiative to adopt WFH arrangement and private companies to follow suit, or expected the government to order private companies to arrange staff to work from home, in a bid to reduce foot traffic on the streets. Comments included “private companies would not make the move if the government didn’t take the lead to ask civil servants to work from home”, etc. 

Nevertheless, when some employees were allowed to "work from home" as they wished amidst the long-lasting epidemic, challenges have gradually emerged and their happiness didn’t last long. From their comments, netizens encountered problems related to computer support and security. For instance, a netizen who is a civil servant complained that some work cannot be handled on his computer at home (274 times) due to security issues, so he/she has to work in the office. As a data entry clerk in the government, a netizen said he/she cannot take documents home and cannot input government data with a personal computer. An employee from a private company said that the employer failed to provide computer and related technical support, and he/she had to use his/her personal computer to work from home. Comments included "I wonder when the company will provide computers to support WFH first".

Another big problem arising from WFH is the employer-employee relationship. Words such as "boss" and "pressure" were mentioned at least 503 times and 216 times, respectively. Many netizens said under WFH, employers are concerned whether employees slack off at work, and employees face great pressure as their boss will call them at any time, or require them to open the camera on their computers for video conferencing to prove that they are working. Comments include “bosses believe employees may slack off when working from home”, and “employers are very old-fashioned as they monitor employees via conference call to ensure employees are working”.

As the epidemic weighed on market sentiment, negative news surrounding pay cuts and layoffs triggered heated discussions among netizens. They were more concerned about social events than their own futures. The top five posts about pay cuts and layoffs were related to current affairs - “Top government officials, civil servants and disciplined forces are expected to see pay cuts in order to tide over the harsh times with citizens” and “layoffs in i-Cable News and Cathay Pacific Airways”. Most posts and comments about pay cuts were related to the topic – “netizens grumble about pay rises for CE and police officers”. In terms of layoffs, most netizens were concerned about “whether the Hospital Authority will dismiss medics who went on strike”. They were stunned by the layoffs in i-Cable News and Cathay Pacific Airways, and they also expressed sympathy to the sacked employees.

The COVID-19 pandemic is still rampaging across the world after one year of the outbreak. WFH will inevitably become the mega trend. Big data show the biggest difficulty for promoting WFH is the lack of hardware and technical support, as well as mutual trust between the employers and the employees. To address these problems, apart from spending money, employers and employees should maintain close communications though they could not talk to one another face-to-face.

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