Building opportunities for expat spouses

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Kathleen van der Wilk-Carlton of the Permits Foundation speaks to Patrick Rovers about how the Foundation’s work is progressing.

Employees often refuse postings
due to spouse employment issues.

PR: Can you tell me why the Permits Foundation remains a genuine asset for the international expat community?

KW-C:  Permits Foundation is an asset to the international community because it focuses on encouraging governments to remove work permit hurdles for the spouses and partners of internationally assigned staff.

International mobility surveys show that concerns about partner employment are the major reason why staff members turn down an international assignment. It is an issue that affects men and women of all nationalities working in both the private and public sectors. The difficulty of getting a work permit is a significant part of the problem and Permits Foundation promotes open work permits for partners worldwide.

PR:  What have been the major achievements of the Permits Foundation in the last five years?

KW-C:  When we last spoke, the USA had just passed a law allowing the spouses of intra-company transfers, treaty traders and investors to get work authorisation. Our direct contribution was to propose that the US legislation apply to all nationalities, rather than on a bilateral basis alone, which was the original idea of the legislators. Since then, we have successfully promoted change in The Netherlands, France and Hong Kong. Each of these countries now allows the spouses of highly skilled employees (and intra-group transferees in France) to work freely during an assignment. In the case of the Netherlands and France, this also applies to family members.
We have also developed a clear picture of international best practice and are using this to show countries the gap between where they are now and where they need to be to make their country more attractive to international staff, trade and investment.

PR: Can you tell me more about the people running the Permits Foundation and the current sponsors actively backing the Foundation’s work?

KW-C: More than 40 international companies and organisations support the foundation with an annual donation. You can view them at They represent a broad base of sectors, countries of origin and global operations. A board of 10 sponsors meets quarterly to review strategy and plans and is also more actively involved in supporting efforts in particular countries. The chairman is Gill Gordon, Director of Executive Compensation at Schlumberger Limited. She has just replaced our outgoing chairman, Jan Schaapsmeerders, who recently retired as HR director of Shell Nederland. Kees van der Waaij, CEO of Unilever Nederland, is also a member of the board.

PR: Do you think there have been positive developments for spouses and partners of expatriates worldwide, or is the Netherlands still one of the few countries that actually endorses their rights and possibilities?

KW-C: There have certainly been positive developments worldwide. Currently, 17 countries have favourable arrangements for granting work permission to the spouse, partner and sometimes children of work permit holders.

Within Europe, apart from the Netherlands, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Sweden and the UK allow family members of non-EU citizens to work, with some variations in the criteria and procedure. Outside Europe, the list includes Argentina, Australia, Canada, Hong Kong, Japan, New Zealand, Singapore and the USA.

This is a clear sign that governments increasingly recognise that allowing partners to work is an integral part of attracting highly qualified staff and managing migration.

You can also add to this the enlargement of the European Union to 27 Member States, where transition arrangements are gradually being removed. By 2011 at the latest, free movement for work purposes will be extended to European citizens and family members of all "EU 25" member states any by 2014 it will also apply to citizens of Bulgaria and Romania.

PR: Is the Netherlands still on the right track, or do you see room for improvement?

KW-C:  I feel that the Netherlands has made a great improvement with the introduction of a fast-track, combined process of resident permit and work permission for non-European knowledge migrants and their family members. The system has simple, transparent criteria and a measure of control by requiring employers to register with the scheme and give certain guarantees.

This is really a great scheme, though from feedback I have had from employers and families, there could still be some procedural improvements, for example when the family does not arrive with the employee, the process takes rather longer. Also, more information could be posted on all the relevant web sites so that everyone can get easy access to the regulations.

Finally, we shouldn’t forget that there are other work permit holders who do not meet the salary criteria for knowledge migrants. To facilitate their integration and equal opportunity, their family members should also be granted work authorisation. I hope that will come once the benefits of economic migration are well embedded.

PR: What is the position of the neighbouring countries (UK, Belgium, Germany) with regard to trailing spouses or partners?

KW-C: The United Kingdom has for many years, allowed the family members of all work permit holders to work freely. In that sense, we regard it as the longest standing example of best practice.

In Belgium, the spouse and children need a work permit linked to their own employer and this is granted without a full test of the labour market.

In Germany, the regulations are more complex, depending on the type of permit the employee has. For example, the spouses of intra-company transfers need a work permit linked to their own employer but this will normally be granted without a test of the labour market. Only routine checks of the employer are required.

In both Belgium and Germany, we‘d like to see the process simplified further to an open work permission for the duration of the assignment.

PR: What is happening at EU level?

KW-C: Last year the European Commission's Directorate for Employment, Social Affairs and Equal Opportunities recognised spouse employment as one of the factors influencing mobility and commissioned a study to gather further evidence. The results have not been published yet, but I am hopeful that they support the need for further action.

The Commission is also planning to publish proposals for entry and work of highly skilled migrants in September 2007. Proposals for intra-company transfers will follow in 2008. Permits Foundation has advocated that these proposals include a provision for partners to work freely.

You can read more about our efforts at EU level at. 

PR: What are your thoughts on China and Asia as a whole? Are there more possibilities for trailing spouses and partners?

KW-C: Both China and Asia as a whole are important destinations for international companies. Possibilities for spouses vary from country to country and generally unmarried partners are not recognised at all. On the positive side, both Hong Kong and Singapore allow spouses of professional staff to work. In the case of Singapore, this requires a letter of consent from the Ministry of Manpower and this is usually granted within two weeks.

In the People's Republic of China, Malaysia and India, a spouse is not allowed to work as a derivative of the employee’s visa and would need to get a work permit or employment visa linked to his or her own employer. So there is certainly scope for simplification in a number of countries and we hope that they will take notice of the best practice examples of Hong Kong and the other countries I have mentioned that allow spouses to work freely.

PR: The Permits Foundation has an excellent web site ( How can this web site help spouses or partners of expatriates to prepare for an assignment abroad?

The site has a links section which lists official country sources on work permit regulations. In addition, we give a helpful overview of all the countries with favourable arrangements for spouses and in some cases partners and other dependants. You can view it at:

22 June 2007 

[Copyright Expatica 2007]

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