The importance of safeguarding spouse work authorisation

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Passengers walking at the EuroStar train terminal at St. Pancras International in London, Britain. [EPA/ANDY RAIN]

In the past two decades, there has been a steady increase in the number of countries enabling work authorisation for partners and spouses of highly-skilled employees on international assignment. This positive international trend has resulted in a ‘triple-win’ for governments, employers and families, writes Helen Frew.

Helen Frew is an international advocacy advisor at Permits Foundation.

The question of whether a spouse can access employment is one of the main factors influencing the success or failure of an international work assignment. Permits Foundation advocates the facilitation of dual careers in the global workplace.

In its survey of 177 leading global organisations (employing almost 7.5 million between them), more than a half of employers reported that employees turned down an assignment and 21% reported that assignees returned home early due to this concern.

The Foundation’s research also shows that in the vast majority of cases, spouses of highly-skilled workers are also highly educated (80-90% of highly skilled partners are graduates). In addition to making economic sense, access to employment for partners has a positive impact on health and well-being, family relationships and integration into the host country.

Many international companies who need to move talent recognise this and support the work of Permits Foundation. Governments are also seeing the importance; over 30 countries have adopted Permits Foundation’s best practice model of direct access to employment for family members for the duration of the assignment.

Countries including Australia, Canada and Brazil have acknowledged that adopting this policy helps give them a competitive edge on the global market. However, with the changing political climate, it is important for all best practice countries to maintain good standards.

The EU is one of the most forward-thinking areas on the issue, with both the Intra-Corporate Transferees Directive and the Blue Card Directive including work authorisation for recognised family members.

Yet a proposed revision of the Blue Card Directive, currently being negotiated by the EU institutions, includes a clause that would allow member states to apply a labour market check before spouse work access can be assured.

This comes despite the recognition in the draft text that “unhindered access to work for spouses should be a fundamental element of this Directive in order to facilitate the attraction of highly skilled workers”. An easy way to ensure that best practice is preserved here would be to delete the reference to a labour market test, something that both Permits Foundation and the European Parliament support.

The UK also allows work access for family members, both of EU citizens (under the free movement provisions) and of employees from outside the EU.  The Home Office confirmed that there would be no change to this policy during a major review of migration policy in 2016.

With Brexit on the horizon, there are good intentions in the UK Government’s EU Settlement Scheme Statement of Intent to ensure continued work authorisation for partners in the transition phase. But families of EU citizens may find it hard to relax with the current uncertainty around the Brexit negotiations.

The Permits Foundation Brexit survey recently gathered input from over 70 companies, research institutes and universities. HR managers in these organisations cited family member work access as a key issue.

As a result of the survey feedback, Permits Foundation made several policy recommendations to the UK government relating to the registration process, safeguarding of rights and the importance of communicating Brexit developments to business.

The recommendations reflect the practicalities of living and working as a family unit. For example, it is fair to expect that EU settlement scheme application procedures would deal with family members at the same time.

Across the Atlantic, US legislation allows work authorisation for spouses of intra-company transferees, treaty traders and exchange scientists. Promisingly, in 2015, an executive order added spouses of H1B highly-skilled visa holders caught in the long pipeline for a Green Card.

Yet recent signals indicate that the current administration’s immigration policies, including the Buy American, Hire American policy, will result in this group of H4 spouses having their right to work removed, despite opposition from business groups.

The Business Round Table, Information Technology Industry Council and the Council for Global Immigration all highlight that the existing H4 rule helps companies to recruit much-needed talent, develop economically, and create jobs.

In February, Permits Foundation wrote to the Department of Homeland Security requesting continuation of the current H4 employment authorisation scheme. A comment period is expected in the coming months before any final decision is made here.

It is really worth celebrating how far countries have come in terms of enabling dual careers. At the international level, facilitating family work access has been recognised as a means to enhance availability and flexibility of pathways for regular migration in the UN’s Global Compact for Migration.

Indeed, globally the trends in spousal work authorisation are moving in the right direction with positive outcomes for the host economies, the companies and the families involved. However, with a quickly changing political landscape, there’s no room for complacency. Countries should continue to keep up best practice and reap the rewards of the ‘triple-win’.

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