The Best Cities To Get Sent On Assignment (And Some Of The Worst)

Expat Briefing Editorial Team, 29 February, 2016

Yes, the weather is often on the dull side, taxes are usually on the high side and the cost of real estate is on the eye-wateringly expensive side, but Western Europe still dominates the top tier of Mercer's league table of cities measured in terms of their quality of life for expat employees. In this feature, we look at the results of Mercer's latest quality of life rakings to see which cities are the most benign for expatriate workers, and which are downright dangerous!

Austria, Germany and Switzerland – The Plumb Postings

Midge Ure's ode to Vienna may have been famously pipped to the number one spot in the UK singles chart by novelty act Jo Dolce and his ditty "Shaddap You Face" in 1982 (which is available on YouTube if you fancy cheering yourself up), but the Austrian capital is 2016's undisputed champion at providing a good all-round quality of life to expat workers, according to Mercer.

Indeed, six Western European cities are found in the top-ten of Mercer's quality of living chart, with Austria's neighbours, Germany and Switzerland, featuring particularly prominently. Immediately following Vienna in second place is Zurich, with Munich (4th), Dusseldorf (6th), Frankfurt (7th), Geneva (8th) and Copenhagen (9th) also found in the first ten places.

It is something of a cliché that the trains tend to run on time in these well-ordered European nations, a reflection of wider excellence in public services and infrastructure perhaps. But this year it seems that it is these cities' reputation as safe places to live that has cemented their places at the upper end of the ranking, despite the increasing threat of terrorism in Europe.

As Mercer points out, safety is a key factor for multinationals to consider when sending expatriate workers abroad, not only to keep employees out of harm's way, but also to keep costs down for employers.

"Heightened domestic and global security threats, population displacement resulting from violence, and social unrest in key business centres around the world are all elements adding to the complex challenge facing multinational companies when analysing the safety and health of their expatriate workforces," said Ilya Bonic, Senior Partner and president of Mercer's Talent business. "Multinational companies need accurate data and objective methods to determine the cost implications of deteriorating living standards and personal safety issues when compensating expatriates."

This year, Mercer has published a personal safety ranking for all of the 230 cities included in its main league table, and, unsurprisingly, Western European locations also do rather well in that too. Luxembourg tops the personal safety list and is followed by Bern, Helsinki, and Zurich – all tied in 2nd place.

Given its high population of expat workers, and its reputation as a world city, London lays a disappointing 72nd place in the personal safety stakes. In fact, the United Kingdom doesn't fare too well at all in comparison to some of its European neighbours. Its safest cities are all in Scotland, and include Aberdeen, Edinburgh and Glasgow, which are tied in 44th place. The London is placed 39th in the overall quality of life ranking, just behind Barcelona (38th), Lyon (37th) and Paris (36th), but ahead of Milan (41st), Chicago (43rd) New York (44th) and Tokyo (also 44th).

Interestingly, Mercer's ranking shows a stark divide between Western and Central and Eastern Europe in terms of quality of life. Prague is the highest-ranked Central and Eastern European city, in 69th place, followed by Ljubljana (76th) and Budapest (77th). The lowest ranking cities in Europe are Kiev (176th), Tirana (179th), and Minsk (190th).

"Ensuring that the needs of expatriates and their families are met wherever work takes them is an essential part of talent retention and recruitment strategies for most multinationals," said Slagin Parakatil, Principal at Mercer and responsible for the quality-of-living research. "Managing safety and health issues is of utmost importance, especially for employees who relocate with a family."

Parakatil added: "Other elements that add to safety costs in the host location are obtaining suitable and well secured accommodations; having an in-house comprehensive expatriate security programme and providing access to reputable professional evacuation services and medical support firms, and finally, providing security training and guarded office premises." 

Mercer's survey, one of the world's most comprehensive, is conducted annually to enable multinational companies and other employers to compensate employees fairly when placing them on international assignments. Employee incentives include a quality-of-living allowance and a mobility premium. Mercer's Quality of Living surveys provide data as well as hardship premium recommendations for over 440 cities throughout the world. This year's ranking includes 230 of these cities.

The Best (and Worst) of the Rest

The Americas

Quality of Living remains high in North America, with Canadian cities awarded the highest rankings. Vancouver (5th) is the only North American city in the top ten, with Toronto in 15th and Ottawa in 17th.

In the United States, San Francisco (28th) ranks highest for quality of living, followed by Boston (34th), Honolulu (35th), Chicago (43rd), and New York City (44th).

The lowest-ranked cities in North America, including the Caribbean region, are Monterrey (108th), Mexico City (127th), Havana (191st) and Port-au-Prince (227th).

In South America, Montevideo (78th), Buenos Aires (93rd), and Santiago (94th) remain the highest ranking cities for quality of living, whereas Bogota (130th), La Paz (156th), and Caracas (185th) rank lowest.

It probably comes as no surprise that Canadian cities rank much higher than their American counterparts in terms of safety. In Mercer's personal safety ranking, Calgary, Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto, and Vancouver share 16th place. There are no US cities in the top-50, although Mercer says that North American cities are still generally safe for expats.

The cities in North America with the lowest personal safety rankings are found in Mexico and the Caribbean. They include Kingston (199th), Tegucigalpa (201st), and Port-au-Prince (211th).

Also unsurprisingly, South American cities fare particularly badly in Mercer's safety rankings. Montevideo is South America's highest ranking city for personal safety, in 96th place. Caracas, ranked 214th, is the lowest.

According to Mercer, Mexican cities are placed relatively low down the ranking because of drug-related violence. Meanwhile, increasing unemployment and political instability has marred quality of life in certain Caribbean and South American countries.


Predictably, given its vast size, there are large variations in the results for the Asia-Pacific region.

Cities in Australasia fare the best in the overall quality of life ranking, with Auckland placed third, Sydney 10th, Wellington 12th and Melbourne 15th. New Zealand's two main cities also fare well in the personal safety ranking, with Auckland and Wellington tied for 9th place. In Australia, Melbourne, Perth, and Sydney share 25th place.

Japanese cities rank highest in Eastern Asia, with Tokyo in 44th place. Other notable cities here are Hong Kong (70th), Taipei (84th), Shanghai (101st), and Beijing (118th).

However, excluding Australia and New Zealand, Singapore is Asia's highest-ranked city, in 26th. Other key cities include Bangkok (129th), Manila (136th), and Jakarta (142nd).

Singapore is also one of Asia's safest cities, being placed at 8th in the personal safety index. five Japanese cities&8211;Kobe, Nagoya, Osaka, Tokyo, and Yokohama&8211;that are tied for 32nd place. Other key cities include Hong Kong (37th), Taipei (78th), Beijing (97th), Seoul (115th), New Delhi (142nd), and Jakarta (172nd). Following considerable political unrest and terrorist attacks in several tourist areas over the last few years, Bangkok ranks 173rd for personal safety.

Middle East and Africa

In 75th place, Dubai continues to rank highest for quality of living across Africa and the Middle East, followed by Abu Dhabi (81st) and Port Louis in Mauritius (83rd). The South African cities of Durban, Cape Town, and Johannesburg rank 85th, 92nd, and 95th respectively. And it must come as shock to very few people to learn that Baghdad props up the quality of living ranking, in 230th place.

Very few cities in this region find themselves in Mercer's top 100 for personal safety, with Mercer noting that regional geopolitics is "highly volatile and characterised by safety concerns, political turmoil, and an elevated risk of terrorism."

Abu Dhabi is highest placed in 23rd, followed by Muscat (29th), Dubai (40th), and Port Louis (59th). Doha, which is due to stage the FIFA World Cup in 2002, ranks 70th for personal safety.

Damascus (229th) and Baghdad (230th) are the lowest-ranked cities in the region for personal safety, "both of which have witnessed continual violence and terrorist attacks that weigh upon the daily life of locals and expatriates," says Mercer.

Maybe it's time to start humming that famous chorus to "Vienna" when you're in the office, and hope your boss gets the hint. Failing that, maybe a Matterhorn screen saver, or strategically-positioned brochures for Rhine river cruises will do the trick. Or a combination of the three.

Tags: business | multinationals | Europe | Asia-Pacific | Other | North America | Africa | South America | Western Europe | Central and Eastern Europe | expatriates | employees | Dubai | Japan | Austria | New Zealand | Switzerland | Australia | Mexico | Singapore | services |


Features Archive