By Helen Frew
“Will I be able to work?” is one of the first questions many partners ask when a new posting arises. In India, like many other countries, the answer is not a simple ‘’yes’’ or ‘’no’’. The result depends on several factors including skills and experience, networking and job seeking in an unfamiliar location. Without doubt the most decisive factor is the process of work authorisation itself. Increasingly, governments are making this procedure more direct – granted upon recognition of dependant status. The rewards are being felt not only by the international relocating family but also by company employers and competitive countries looking to attract and retain needed talent.
Indeed, the policy in practice is popular not only because it reflects modern expectations among mobile dual-career families, but also because it helps to help attract inward investment and ease integration. Over 85% of partners and spouses of highly-skilled international employees are themselves highly qualified. Many have had to leave their previous employment at a time they themselves had not chosen. Perhaps unsurprisingly, when considering a transfer (often of 3- 5 years), mobile families first seek assurance that both members of the couple can continue to work during that period. A recent survey of global mobility professionals by Permits Foundation found that in more than half of organisations, an international assignment had been turned down as a result of concerns around the partner’s career.
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Authorising direct work access does not automatically guarantee a job but it does give the spouse added security pre-move that they will be able to seek employment once their family status is recognised. At present in India, spouses of employment visa holders may obtain student or research visas provided they are eligible, but they cannot work on a dependant visa. If these spouses get a job offer, they need to apply for an employment ‘E’ visa and then face a very uncertain process which can be inconvenient, time consuming and costly – both for the prospective employee and employer.
The problem goes further than the individual experience of the spouse. With dual-careers now becoming the norm, the issue of partner work access is directly linked to attraction and retention of international talent. Companies investing in India need a small group of their own, highly-skilled resources – intra-company transferees (ICTs) – to transfer knowledge, experience and management skills. However, such in demand professionals are typically accompanied by highly-skilled spouses whose expectation is continued access to employment. Where access is uncertain, companies find it much harder to deploy their best talent.
A simple amendment to the current visa guidelines permitting spouses of ICTs (E-3X visa holders) to take up employment, self-employment or voluntary work for the duration of the visa and co-terminus with the ICT (E-3 visa holder) would be a significant point of attraction for highly-qualified international employees moving to India. This is an even more pressing necessity at a point of time when in the wake of the of pandemic, globally mobile families are far more wary of the risks associated with potential separation or lock-down in another country.
The interesting part is that there is de facto reciprocity currently for Indian families in more than 30 globally competitive countries that already allow accompanying spouses to work directly on their dependant visa. Managers and specialists can go on temporary assignment to Canada, Brazil, Member States across the EU, the UK, Australia and many more destinations without their partners facing an enforced career break.
Even in the US, where immigration reform has been historically difficult to achieve, direct work authorisation for spouses of ICTs, treaty traders and investors, incident to their dependant status has now been implemented. The European Union Blue Card Directive, recently revised to help attract skills and talent in sectors facing labour shortages, cited that “access to work for spouses should be a fundamental element of this Directive in order to better attract highly qualified workers from third-countries”.
With the corporate assignment more likely to succeed, there is undoubtedly an economic benefit. Countries enabling direct work access for spouses become a more attractive business and investment destination. Representatives report that their organisations greatly value the facilitated transfer of knowledge, skills and technology. And with women making up over three quarters of accompanying partners, the policy also contributes to UN Sustainable Development Goals of enhancing diversity, equity and inclusion in the global workplace. Importantly there has been no demonstrably negative impact on the local labour market. The numbers involved are typically low, international employees make up around 1.8% of the total company workforce and not all are accompanied.
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It has been the intention of the Indian Government to attract foreign direct investment in all sectors. Following the creation of the E-3 category visa for intra-company transferees, India is now perfectly positioned to benefit from policy change. An update to the E-3X visa to enable direct work access for spouses of intra-corporate transferees could bring significant reward.