Global Immigration and the ‘Trailing’ Spouse: Barrier to Mobility or Stealth Competitive Advantage?

In the first guest post of the series, Andrea Elliot examines the issues involved in securing work for the accompanying spouses in dual-career households.  She also describes pre-assignment activities that can reduce the stress of dealing with visas, lists countries that are accompanying spouse-friendly, and offers work alternatives if a job cannot be legally obtained.

By Andrea Elliott

We all have read articles and attended seminars and conferences urging international human resource (HR) managers and global relocation professionals to heed a warning concerning international assignments—ignore the “trailing spouse” at your own financial peril.

Even the European Commission, in its 2005 report titled “Community Incentive Measures in the field of Employment,” recognized that the difficulty of finding employment for spouses of mobile workers is one of the major obstacles for occupational and geographic mobility in Europe.

However, our practical and daily experience in the legal and global immigration field reveals that despite the warnings of the GMAC Global Relocation Services, Woodridge, Illinois, 11th annual “Global Relocation Trends Survey,” conducted in conjunction with the National Foreign Trade Council (NFTC), Washington, DC, spouses very rarely are invited to participate in any of the immigration planning and hardly ever offered any pre-departure support from a work permit perspective.

Trailing spouses are just not on the “to-do” list when it comes to international assignment planning. The question of obtaining work authorization for the trailing spouse largely is downplayed or ignored.

The result—the “honeymoon glow” of a foreign assignment fades into cold reality when the trailing spouse learns that there are major difficulties in working legally in the new foreign country.

The moniker “trailing spouse” conjures images of a frazzled, meek person, bumbling along behind the assignee. This is why we refer to him or her as an “accompanying spouse” because, for the most part, he or she is educated, speaks more than one language, has had his or her own career, and is the glue that keeps the family together.

Sadly, the vast majority of immigration laws around the world prevent the spouse from working by not offering derivative work status. These laws largely are a legacy from a time when most assignees were men and many women did not work and, to a lesser degree, the result of protectionism for local labor markets. Government and business have not kept pace with each other. The business world has moved forward, and the dual-career couple is a reality; the law has stayed behind, penalizing spouses who want to work in the host location but are not permitted to do so.

Fortunately, there are organizations that actively lobby foreign governments for change to this archaic status quo. One of the best known and effective of these organizations, the Permits Foundation, is based in The Hague, the Netherlands. As a non-profit organization, its key goal is to encourage foreign governments to liberalize their business-related work permit legislation to allow accompanying expatriate spouses to participate freely in local employment markets.

Because of the committed efforts of organizations such as the Permits Foundation, as well as the forces of economic activity demanding more local labor, governments are starting to recognize that they have a valuable skilled pool of labor in the “already present in country” accompanying spouse population.

Kathleen Van der Wilk Carlton, secretary and board member of the Permits Foundation, stated recently in an interview withForeign Direct Investment (fDi) magazine that “providing open work authorization for accompanying partners is very important in attracting the highly qualified staff and talent that goes hand in hand with international trade and investment.”

As such, a few forward-thinking countries have begun to shift their focus from protecting their job markets to work authorization for accompanying spouses, resulting in a tremendous economic advantage for those countries. Hong Kong is a prime example of this recent trend. In May 2006, in an effort to generate economic activity with the existing population of spouses who could not work, the Hong Kong immigration regulations were amended to permit accompanying spouses and dependents the right to work.

In a recent article by Maureen Minehan, “Spousal Work Permits Could Gain Favor in Competitive Global Economy,” featured in the January 2006 edition of the Society for Human Resource Management’s (SHRM) Global HR News, she noted that the “additional liberalization of work permit laws is likely as countries strive for greater foreign investment and search for solutions to impending labor shortages.”

Minehan also wrote that, “In the United States, for example, the most recent National Study of the Changing Workforce by the Families and Work Institute found that 78 percent of married wage and salaried employees were part of a dual-earning couple today, up from 66 percent in 1977.”

Dual-career Couples Are the Reality

When offered an international assignment, these couples are reluctant to give up their dual-income lives and consequently turn down international assignments when the accompanying spouse cannot work as a result of immigration barriers in the host country. The opportunities for an employee resulting from an international assignment can be outweighed by the detrimental effect of a career dislocation for the partner, according to Ashleigh Lezard in her article “Family Values,” featured in the June 2004 issue of fDi.

Despite an increasingly global society, the problem of career dislocation of the expatriate spouse still exists and continues to frustrate international human resource (IHR) departments. Increasingly, companies are recognizing the need to address the problem in pre-assignment strategy planning and now devote a fair budget toward finding solutions.

Practically speaking, what can an IHR professional or relocation consultant do to assist the accompanying spouse before the assignment commences to ensure that his or her needs are met?

The solution, from a legal perspective, lies in pre-assignment planning for the spouse, candidate country suitability selection, and effective strategic support.

Tips for Pre-assignment Assistance for the Accompanying Spouse

The following are a few suggestions to add to your “to-do” list when planning your international assignment.

  1. The first step should be to identify all the locations in which your company or client operates. Make a list of the countries either from the company website or annual report.
  2. Using that list as your foundation, your next step should be to establish which of those countries you have global assignees in or will be sending assignees to in the future.
  3. Then, review the candidate selection by establishing the gender of the principal expatriate. In the article “Supporting the Male Accompanying Spouse,” by Peggy Greenwood and Laura Herring, SCRP, GMS, featured in the June 2003 issue of MOBILITY, the authors found that a male is the accompanying spouse in more than 15 percent of cross-border relocations.
  4. You should then review the gender of the accompanying spouse. Saudi Arabia, for example, does not recognize the possibility that a man could be the accompanying spouse of a female expatriate.
  5. Establish whether the couple is married or in a de facto relationship. Muslim countries only permit accompaniment by married spouses and do not recognize de facto relationships.
  6. Identify assignees in a same-sex relationship. Knowing that South Africa, United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, and the Netherlands recognize the validity of same-sex relationships for work permit purposes can prevent any potentially incorrect country assignments.
  7. For certain Middle Eastern countries, you will have to review the religious affiliation of the accompanying spouse, as there may be immigration discrimination against non-Muslim females. For example, the religious laws of Saudi Arabia prohibit non-Muslims from entering Mecca (see De Yoreo v. Bell Helicopter Textron, Inc., 785 F.2d 1282 (5th Cir. 1986)).
  8. Check the nationality of the accompanying spouse and ascertain if she or he has more than one passport, as often a dual national has better options with his or her “other” nationality. For example, if the spouse is a United States citizen but also holds an EU passport, he or she would be entitled to work anywhere in the EU without having to obtain separate work authorization.
  9. Verify that the spouse was born in the country of the passport in which she or he is a national. For example, if the spouse is currently a national of the United Kingdom but was in fact born in Pakistan, an assignment to India may result in lengthy delays of visa processing because of the nature of diplomatic relations between India and Pakistan. The fact that the spouse currently has a UK passport is irrelevant because Indian authorities require declaration of past nationalities and decisions are made based on that information.
  10. Review the country immigration regulations on dependents’ right to employment.
  11. Identify which countries view the accompanying spouse as a dependent without a right to work, and which countries will permit work authorization for the spouse without him or her having to apply independently and face the same administrative challenges as the principal expatriate. On your list of “accompanying spouse-friendly” countries should be Australia, UK, Canada, Hong Kong, New Zealand, the Netherlands (in certain categories), Sweden, and, in a few visa categories, the United States (See sidebar.).
  12. Develop an internal policy to ensure that the organization is complying with immigration law in every country in which you have a corporate entity.
  13. Strongly consider the development of a policy outlining how the work permits and visa application process is to be handled in countries where the accompanying spouse cannot work. One option may be to offer the spouse a lump-sum allowance to obtain legal counsel locally if he or she finds a job in the host country.
  14. Reminders about the policy and how to use it can be distributed through corporate intranet sites, e-mail blasts to managers, leaflets, and other media.

The Accompanying Spouse-friendly Countries

Australia. If your client’s organization has locations in Australia and a standard business sponsorship in place, you will be able to advise the business unit managers that Australia is an excellent location to send dual-career couples. Australia offers working privileges to both the principal assignee and the spouse under, for example, the subclass 457 visa. This means that the accompanying spouse does not have to apply separately for a work permit—they are authorized to work by virtue of the assignee’s approval.

United Kingdom. Accomp anying spouses and common law partners are afforded the same benefits as the work permit holder, provided their passports have not been endorsed stating they may not work.

The Netherlands. In April 2005, largely because of the efforts of the Permits Foundation, accompanying spouses and partners no longer need to apply for a separate work permit if they are spouses within a specific category of foreign worker. The category is limited to partners of foreign workers who earn more than €45,000 per annum. To qualify for the new conditions, companies apply to the Immigration and Naturalization Service for “knowledge-migrant” status for the expatriate employee. This process enables the partner to apply for a residence permit that allows him or her to work during the assignment.

Hong Kong. As of May 1, 2006, the Hong Kong Immigration Department changed its regulations to ensure that dependents of professional workers or capital-investment entrants admitted into Hong Kong no longer need prior permission before taking up employment.

Germany. Under new regulations passed in 2005, if the duration of an international assignment is to last for more than one year, the accompanying spouse is granted the same working permit as the employee.

United States. There are three categories of non-immigrant visas—“E,” “L,” and “J”— that offer the accompanying spouse employment authorization without a separate filing of work permit. Thus, when a business need emerges that requires a foreign national to enter the United States, one of the primary considerations should be strategizing with the provider to review steps one through 14 outlined in this article. If there is a need for the accompanying spouse to work, then using the correct approach to obtain work authorization to facilitate both spouses is applied for before arrival in the United States.

Canada. Spouses of highly skilled temporary workers entering Canada are allowed to apply for an “open” (i.e., non-employer-specific) work permit. Please note that the term “spouse” includes both common-law and same-sex partners who have been cohabiting with the principal applicant in a conjugal relationship for at least one year prior to the application (see visa-info/worker/e_spouse.htm).

New Zealand. Spouses and de facto partners of people issued work visas and work permits (including long-term business visas and permits) allowing a stay in New Zealand of more than six months may apply for and be granted a multiple-entry work visa and work permit under this policy. Domestic partners (same-sex and opposite-sex) also are eligible for unrestricted work authorization if evidence of a common law relationship exists (

Alternatives for the Accompanying Spouse

If the IHR professional or in-house counsel who is tasked with managing the process is faced with the situation that the couple is going to a country where only the assignee will be able to work, there are alternate solutions that are available to the spouse. While not perfect solutions, they do permit the spouse to overcome the isolation of not working at all.

Work independently as a self-employed professional. In Belgium, for example, an alternative many spouses take to overcome the work permit problem is to practice a trade or occupation as an “independent.” Independent, self-employed workers must have a Belgian professional card, which is the equivalent of a work permit for self-employed persons. Professional assistance always should be sought in the planning stages of the visa strategy, as an incorrect initial approach to the authorities or an incorrectly completed application form may not be salvageable.

Position within the expat’s company. Another solution could be to find the spouse a position within your company abroad.

Find a position with another company abroad. If the spouse is unable to work freely, then she or he also can look for a position with another company in the foreign country. This may force the couples to move abroad at different times. Therefore, the process for obtaining the spouse’s authorization usually would need to be completed prior to entry for most countries.

Use existing online resources. There are websites that are available to assist the spouse find positions, thus enhancing the assignee’s global mobility. For example, was launched by corporations that found that their employees’ mobility was being limited by the lack of opportunities for their spouses. Another resource, which offers tips about expat living. There also is, which was formed by two women who have lived abroad as expat spouses and offers an online network of support.

Volunteer. While it is not considered employment, finding a volunteer organization where the accompanying spouse can feel part of an entity and assimilate local culture is a possibility. Be sure to verify with your immigration professional in a pre-departure consultation whether volunteer work in the host country requires a separate visa, as there are certain countries, particularly in Africa, where volunteer work requires a visa over and above the dependent visa. If you choose to volunteer, your personal contributions can have a huge effect because the need is so great.

Student visa. There are “student” visa options, where the spouse can enroll for language skills training at a local college if that option is not covered under the ambit of the dependent visa.

Join a support group. If there is no local support group, then form one yourself. Follow the example of a male support group that was established in Belgium in 1994. It has the acronym STUDS (Spouses Trailing Under Duress Successfully).

Create your own weblog chronicling your time abroad. According to Nancy Case, who is an accompanying spouse currently on assignment with her husband in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates (see, the job description, if there were one for an accompanying spouse, would look like this:

  1. Must be a creative problem-solver ready for a variety of new challenges.
  2. Must be able to quickly assemble your own large network of on-the-ground contacts through informal means.
  3. Must have a strong sense of inwardly-focused self-esteem.
  4. Experience in logistics, foreign languages, and travel planning a plus.
  5. Must be flexible.
  6. Must possess a positive outlook.
  7. Benefits: foreign travel and a luxury lifestyle.
  8. Overall, nice work if you can get it.

Being the accompanying spouse opens up a brave new world of cultures to be explored, languages to be learned, strangers to be turned into friends, and a lifetime of rich memories for those willing to take the risk.

Andrea Elliott is Senior Foreign Counsel for Pro-Link GLOBAL Visa & Immigration Services, Bradenton, Florida. She can be reached at +1 941 794 6461 or e-mail

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