Almost ninety percent of expat partners were employed before moving abroad; that number drops to a mere thirty-five percent once they are living in a foreign country. And three quarters of those who are not employed would rather be working.
Those are the cold hard figures revealing one of the biggest problems faced by relocated partners: finding work in their new country of residence. They come from a survey of approximately 3,000 expat partners published by the Permits Foundation in late 2008.
Another recent survey, performed by Brookfield Global Relocation Services amongst 120 HR directors at multinational companies, indicates that the situation has become considerably worse for working expat partners, partly because of the current economic uncertainty. According to these findings, only thirteen percent of partners find work during an assignment abroad.
All of which means there is plenty of work ahead for the Permits Foundation, which is dedicated to encouraging governments to ease restrictions on work permits for expat partners. That is generally one of the biggest hurdles for partners looking for work: many countries do not allow them to perform paid work, or make it very difficult to do so.
Kathleen Van der Wilk, of the Permits Foundation, sums it up like this: “There are about fifteen countries that allow expat partners to work without any conditions. Then, there are a handful of countries that require partners to have a work permit, which they can receive through an expedited process. In all other countries, it is difficult to nearly impossible for the relocated partner to find paid work.”
Countries are lagging behind the times with such policies, notes Van der Wilk. “In most cases, the expat partner is a woman,” she says. “These tend to be highly educated people who had a career in their own country and want to continue working. The desire to keep working has really grown in the past few decades. And I’m not just referring to women from Western countries, but also from many other countries.”
Equally important, she points out, is that governments are only hurting themselves by making it so difficult for these people to get a work permit. “For one thing,” she continues, “these highly educated, expat partners can contribute to the economy of the host country through their work. In addition, you make international relocation, with all the investment that brings, more difficult if you don’t allow partners to work. Our research shows that sixty percent of partners would refuse, or prefer not, to relocate if they cannot continue to work themselves.”
Pushing for legislative change
One thing is clear: Van der Wilk is a powerful champion of expat partners who want to get back to work. She has been part of the Permits Foundation since its inception, initiating its creation in 2001, after having worked as an HR Manager for Shell in the United Kingdom, Venezuela and the Netherlands. While at Shell, she set up an organisation to help the partners of seconded Shell personnel find jobs in their new country. In the course of that work, she was constantly running up against the issue of work permits for the assignees’ partners.
“It quickly became apparent,” says Van der Wilk, “that I was dealing with a structural problem. There were still very few countries at that time, such as the United Kingdom and Australia, that automatically issued work permits for partners. Besides that, you had one or two countries that had bilateral agreements, primarily for the spouses of diplomats. I thought to myself ‘That should be expanded to include men and women of all nationalities in both the public and private sector’.”
Van der Wilk set up talks with some major corporations, including Akzo Nobel, DSM, Heineken, Shell and Unilever, as well as with the ministries of foreign affairs for the UK and the Netherlands. Everyone she met with agreed that it was time to work together to tackle the problem of work permits for expat partners.
Consequently, the Permits Foundation was founded, with twenty companies and government agencies as its original sponsors. Since then, the number has grown to forty. The sponsors influence foundation policy, such as determining which countries in particular will be targeted, through an eight-member board. Day-to-day operations are conducted by a small team and the foundation has local sponsors and advisors working in the countries where it is concentrating its activities at the time.
How do things stand at the moment in terms of governments’ willingness to issue partners work permits in various countries?
A whole slew of countries now allow the partners of expatriates to work without any restrictions. That is the case in the EU for European citizens, including in the new member states, following a transition period of seven years. Some European countries also allow the family members of non-EU citizens to work.
By mid-2011, the other EU countries will join their ranks with the introduction of the so-called Blue Card system, under which highly skilled non-EU citizens with a job offer are allowed into the EU through an expedited procedure. And thanks to the Permits Foundation, their partners will also have an immediate right to work.
Outside of Europe, Australia, Argentina, Canada and New Zealand allow partners to work. Married spouses are permitted to work in Hong Kong and (albeit under certain restrictions) in Malaysia and Singapore, as well as in Japan, if it is part-time.
The situation for spouses has greatly improved in the US, as well, compared to before. If a married expat is seconded to the US under the terms of an L, E or J visa, his or her spouse can receive an ‘employment authorisation document’ (for any form of work), though it can take up to three months to be issued.
Moreover, this provision only applies in cases where the persons are legally married, not for cohabiters. “We would prefer to see that expanded,” Van der Wilk says, ”so that all partners of all visa holders can get to work straight away.”
China still uncharted territory
The Permits Foundation is currently focusing its efforts on India, Indonesia and Japan – places where it is very difficult for expat partners to work legally. In India, for instance, the permit has to be applied for in the country of origin: the partner must physically leave India, therefore, to do so.
India has indicated that it is prepared to discuss making the process easier, according to Van der Wilk. Several rounds of talks have already been held and more are scheduled. The Permits Foundation is armed with plenty of arguments: ”You’re talking about a small group of people,” she says, “but these people bring know-how and investments with them. What’s more, they pay taxes on their income.
In addition, if India makes it easier for partners to receive work permits, we will publicise it worldwide. That will prompt other countries to change as well, which will strengthen the position of Indian expat partners when they want to work in a foreign country.”
Do countries that are reluctant to grant work permits to the partners of expatriates have any good arguments for doing so?
“The main reasons cited are that it protects their own workers,” Van der Wilk says. “But we have not encountered any in principle opposition. In the end, all advanced countries want to compete for international investments and highly skilled talent. They recognise that this is good for their economy and the local population. It takes time to win broad support for changing laws or regulations, but no country we have initiated talks with so far has refused.”
There are other countries the Permits Foundation would like to bring to the table. China is one of them. With good reason: there are many expats working in this quickly developing country, but their partners are not allowed to work, in theory, without their own work permit.
”China is a major destination for our sponsors, but we have not undertaken anything yet towards the authorities there yet. It’s a question of manpower and our assessment as to how quickly we might be able to achieve success,” Van der Wilk says. “Other countries on the sponsors’ wish list are Mexico and Brazil. We still have a long way to go, but each success paves the way for the next.”
The foundation website, www.permitsfoundation.com, has a breakdown by country of policies regarding work permits for expat partners.
Global Connection/ Henk Dam
Global Connection is an internationally operating media company focusing especially on expats and their partners. For more information, visit www.global-connection.info
Read more from the Permits Foundation in "Lack of partner employment adversely affects talent mobility".
Susan Musich, managing director of Passport Career
Alternate strategy to obtain work permit as partner.
Some countries, such as Brazil and India, it is challenging for the spouse to obtain a work permit on a dependent visa. In cases such as this, it may be easier for the spouse to obtain a job offer from a multinational or multilateral organization and have that organization issue the spouse a visa and work permit. In such cases, the spouse may have to leave the country in order to re-enter the country under a different visa status. Sometimes, however, they can go to a neighboring country rather than back to their home country.
Passport Career, focuses on online global job search support of international professionals, with an emphasis on expat partners. www.passportcareer.com