“Higher Chance of Assignment Failure when the Partner Does Not Have Access to Employment”

For the Permits Foundation, getting working rights for partners and spouses abroad is crucial. Michiel van Campen, Director of this not-for-profit organization, answers seven questions about the impact of partner support on the acceptance and success of foreign assignments.

1. The Permits Foundation is an independent, not-for-profit organization (NPO) working globally to improve work permit regulations to make it easier for relocating spouses to get employment when moving abroad for a foreign assignment. Why is this such an important cause for you?

The Permits Foundation was established in 2001. Global mobility managers of several multinational companies wanted to address the fact that assignments were not being filled because the partners of employees, quite rightly, also wanted to be able to work when in the host country. At that time most countries did not have work permit regulations in place that facilitated dual careers in this way.

Since then, many more companies and other organizations have joined the Foundation, recognizing the crucial link between dual careers and talent attraction and retention. And the Permits Foundation has been carrying out successful advocacy work with countries, ministries, and immigration officials to facilitate the working opportunities for partners and spouses of highly-skilled employees.

A key argument is that where governments enable access to spouse and partner employment, then that country becomes more attractive for highly-skilled employees and companies. It, therefore, helps to promote that country’s investment climate. We didn’t invent this argument — it came from our survey findings gathering feedback from hundreds of employers and employee families and is also reflected in the research carried out by others including, just recently, the OECD in their Indicators of Talent Attractiveness.

2. What are some of your current core goals at the Permits Foundation?

Improving legislation to enable direct access to work for spouses and partners remains our core goal. This is what has been achieved in around 35 countries — and we still have many more to go.

We prioritize those countries where our sponsors have a presence and have indicated to us that there are barriers to employment for dependents. Countries that we’re currently focusing on include India, China, and some African countries. On the one hand we are optimistic about these (new) focus areas, while also being alert to the political and social climate. We don’t want policy rolling backwards in countries where we’ve achieved good practice, such as the USA and UK. We also see the European Union as a best practice area and want it to stay that way having contributed to good provisions for family employment access in the EU Blue Card and the Intra-Corporate Transferee Directives.

We’ve seen considerable success in Ireland, recently. Working rights for spouses there were not automatically granted, but this has changed and partners or spouses of critical skills employment permit holders now have direct access to work. The next step for us would to have the same provision for spouses of intra-corporate transferees.

3. How does the prospect of spouse employment abroad help with assignment acceptance — even before the actual move?

Indeed, a key point here is that families are looking for certainty on this issue before the move takes place. We advocate for direct access to employment, so that through legislation, there is assurance there are no unforeseen hurdles experienced by the family — such as long processing times, labor market checks, or something else that might result in an enforced career break for the accompanying partner.

I have experienced this personally when I used to be a diplomat for the Dutch Foreign Service and lived in Belgium, Vietnam, and Yemen. My wife is a children’s physiotherapist and the fact that she was able to work in a hardship country like Yemen, and keep her profession while abroad, greatly contributed to her well-being — as well as our well-being as a family. Also, importantly, because she could continue working while we were abroad, she didn’t have a career gap and could resume work in the Netherlands once we returned — which is very important for those working in the medical field, for example.

4. According to the EY 2018 Relocating Partner Survey Report, 33% of employers have increased the job performance of their assignees through offering partner support. Why is a satisfied partner so crucial to assignment success?

When the relocating partner has purpose, freedom to decide what to do, and less restrictions with settling in abroad, it greatly contributes to their well-being. Furthermore, it contributes to the well-being of the employee, which translates into performance at work. It is worth remembering that around three-quarters of partners have moved from a country where they were already in employment and 80-90% of partners of highly-skilled employees have a degree.

5. What are the key challenges that organizations face when supporting relocating spouses throughout the expat lifecycle and what’s your advice to address these challenges?

As mentioned, our core focus is on advocacy to enable direct access to work for spouses and partners of highly skilled employees. We talk about partners in the broadest sense and often hear from our network that diversity and inclusion is important for example in relation to same sex couples and non-married partners. Certainly there is no longer the assumption that a family on assignment is a male employee and his female spouse. We encourage our network to highlight such issues of importance and new challenges in global mobility because we take this on board when we look to facilitate legislative improvements in our focus countries.

Looking beyond that and from my personal perspective, it’s not enough for companies to only offer financial compensation. They should rather help spouses and partners with aspects such as intercultural training, career support, and setting up their lives and support networks abroad.

6. How important is the social integration of relocating spouses into their new location to achieve both assignment success and satisfaction?

It’s crucial. As Chairman of the Supervisory Committee of the International School in Breda (the Netherlands), where there are a lot of international families, I see the benefit of a space where partners and spouses can have a person-to-person exchange with others in the same situation and environment. People need networks to integrate with while abroad, even if they are there on a temporary basis.

I also absolutely believe that working opportunities and having a working environment help because in this way people are also exposed to professional networks that can benefit their integration.

7. Finally, why is supporting spouses with employment, social integration, and settling in so important in working towards success for the foreign assignment, the organization, and the relocating family?

The well-being of the partner while abroad depends on many factors and this of course also differs from partner to partner. However, good working opportunities, networking opportunities, schooling support, and so forth are vital for the well-being of the family. I agree with a holistic approach to relocation support and that companies should offer support in a balanced way.

But ultimately, for partners to have the opportunity to work in their host country, the legislation needs to be favorable. That is why the work of the Permits Foundation is crucial and why we encourage companies and other organisations who work in global corporate mobility to give their support to the Foundation. We are sponsored by close to 40 international companies and organizations, and their support makes us a credible stakeholder in our discussions with governments. The upshot of this is that when foreign assignees next go on assignment with their partner, there is a higher chance that it will be a positive experience.

Michiel van Campen_Permits FoundationAbout the Expert: Michiel van Campen is Director of the Permits Foundation, affiliated as Senior Advisor to the MSL group, and has his own consultancy firm in international public affairs. He has worked in the field of international relations for more than 15 years and has led several organizations, foundations, and associations dedicated to helping employers in various policy areas. Michiel started his career at the Dutch Foreign Service with diplomatic assignments. Thereafter, he headed the International Affairs Department of the Dutch province of North-Brabant and was Director of the southern branch of the Dutch employers’ organization VNO-NCW. He is a graduate in international relations (Utrecht University) and public administration (Leiden University).

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