Royal Dutch Shell Plc  .com Rotating Header Image The Permits Foundation: advocate for expat spouse employment

EXTRACT: As founder and manager of the Shell Group’s Spouse Employment Centre in The Hague, she is directly involved in planning the careers of expatriate partners/spouses.

27 June 2007

Work permit barriers for expat spouses can jeopardise a successful international assignment. But now there is an organisation tackling the trailing spouse permit issue. Patrick R. Rovers speaks with The Permits Foundation’s driving force, Kathleen van der Wilk-Carlton.

The Netherlands-based Permits Foundation was established in 2001 as an international corporate initiative to improve work permit regulations for the spouses of expatriate employees.

More than 20 multinationals from Europe and the United States set up the foundation to push local governments to relax work permit regulations that make it difficult for spouses to work in many countries.

The organisation believes dual careers, a need for employee diversity, and an increased need for international employee mobility make it imperative for multinationals and governments to address the issue of work permit barriers for spouses.

Because many spouses have active and rewarding careers in their respective home countries, their partner’s prospective expatriate assignment can be regarded as a genuine hurdle and potential career gap, particularly if employment chances abroad are limited because of work permit issues. Several surveys have shown that a spouse or partner’s career is one of the top reasons employees turn down expatriate assignments.

The Permits Foundation takes a concerted worldwide approach to raising awareness about work permit difficulties. And there are several signs that the issue is being recognised and change is starting.

In the USA, for example, as a result of lobbying by an employers’ coalition MEWS (Multi-national Employers for Working Spouses), supported by the Permits Foundation, two Spousal Work Authorization bills – which allows spouses of L and E visa holders to obtain work authorisation, under certain conditions – were introduced in June 2001 and subsequently became law in January 2002.

Interview with Kathleen van der Wilk-Carlton

The driving force behind the Permits Foundation is its Secretary and Board Member, Kathleen van der Wilk-Carlton, who in daily life works as an independent HR management consultant.

As founder and manager of the Shell Group’s Spouse Employment Centre in The Hague, she is directly involved in planning the careers of expatriate partners/spouses.

Length of spouse work permit procedure, by country

Over six weeks (depending on skills, quotas)  Bangladesh, Belgium, Brazil, Brunei, China, Colombia, Dominican Republic, Egypt, France, Gabon, Germany, Japan (full-time), Malaysia, Nigeria, Oman, Pakistan, Peru, Philippines, Syria, Thailand, Turkey 
Under six weeks  Canada, the Netherlands, Abu Dhabi, Chile, Japan (Part-time), Norway, Singapore 
Automatic  Europeans in EU/EEA, Australia, New Zealand, Sweden, UK, Venezuela, US (since 2002, certain conditions apply) 
Over the years, she identified the need for an international effort to improve the access of partners/spouses to employment.

In recent months, the Permits Foundation has received extensive coverage in the Dutch media, with articles appearing in Carp, De Financiele Telegraaf, Het Financieele Dagblad, and Elsevier, among others.

We spoke with Van der Wilk-Carlton about the Foundations mission and the current state of spousal work permit rules in The Netherlands.

To start, can I have your reaction to the following quote: “My partner has international ambitions. I intend to join him if he decides to leave, but only if I have some genuine career perspective. I’ve invested too much to let opportunities go to waste”.

An understandable reaction. Nowadays, about 75 percent of partners below the age of 35 work before they go overseas. Partners are often as well qualified as the transferred employee, but they face significant challenges to adapt their career to the unfamiliar and different employment market of the host country.

Currently, the Permits Foundation’s focus is on spouses of expatriate employees. Why this limitation to the interests of spouses? Many expatriates are in steady relationships and are not (yet) married to their partners. What may these partners expect from the Permits Foundation?

Although our basic mission statement talks about spouses, we would actually include partners in countries where we believe this would not limit the chance of success. A number of countries are very strict in not granting resident permits to unmarried partners, for either cultural, religious or immigration control reasons. Longer term, we hope that all partners will benefit.

The donors of the Permits Foundations are located throughout Europe and the United States of America. Asian multinationals seem to be missing. Is the Permits Foundation actively looking to branch out into Asia?

Yes, we are actively working to increase awareness in Asia, both through existing sponsors with branches there and by reaching Asian companies directly.

The Permits Foundation has been in business for just over a year. Are there any achievements of which you are especially proud?

Last year, we contributed to detailed discussions on proposals for spouse work authorisation legislation in the USA. The subsequent law, which was passed in January 2002, applies to the spouses of intra-company employees and traders/investors. Once they arrive in the USA, they have the right to apply for an Employment Authorization Document, allowing them to work freely in the United States.

Could something similar happen in the European Union?

Within the European Union, the United Kingdom has allowed the spouses of work permit holders to work for many years, and is a model of best practice. The Netherlands has also had a limited concession since 1998. We have had discussions with the European Commission, but since Europe-wide immigration legislation is at an early stage of development, a country specific approach is also necessary. Schlumberger, one of Permits’ sponsors and patrons, will host a meeting in Paris in October to raise awareness of the issue in France.

The Dutch political landscape changed considerably over the last three months, resulting in a new CDA/VVD/LPF coalition. The new coalition appears to have strong views on aliens and immigration matters. What are the views of the Permits Foundation regarding these current affairs?

In the current climate, it may be helpful to differentiate between the relatively small number of international staff who are recruited or transferred for a temporary period by the corporate sector and the issues of longer term immigration. We’d like to see the current concession for certain spouses to be extended to allow a more open work permit as in the United Kingdom and the United States of America.

One of the mission statements of the Permits Foundation is to raise awareness of the issue of spouse employment in conferences and seminars, and encourage debate. The Permits Foundation seems to be quite successful in catching the public eye. How has it been able to do this?

Quite simply, I think this is an issue whose time has come.

The Netherlands, the United Kingdom, Canada, the United States of America, Australia and New Zealand have already committed themselves to the cause of spouse employment. Yet, there is still a lot to be done. Is it likely that the Permits Foundation has reached all its goals by the year 2025?

As a mother of two boys, I have to believe that the world will be a more equitable place by 2025. So yes, personally, I expect that the Permit Foundation will have reached its goals by then and am committed to achieving them. But if we are to reach our goals, we must understand and respond to concerns. We have to convince governments that international transfers go hand in hand with international trade and investment that promotes local economic growth and employment prospects longer term.

For more information about the Permits Foundation contact Kathleen van der Wilk-Carlton or Phillippa Fletcher on tel: 070 377 4515/6005, email E-mail: or visit

August 2002

Subject: Expat partners

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