Dependent visa change gives lift to business

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 28 May, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 28 May, 2006, 12:00am

Consultants flooded with work inquiries

Employment consultants have been flooded with inquiries since the government reintroduced the right of the spouses of foreign nationals to work automatically in Hong Kong.

The Director of Immigration reinstated the right two weeks ago, after it was withdrawn on July 1, 2003, during the Sars crisis.

'They used Sars-related unemployment to justify the original change in 2003, and in fairness, they realised the policy was wrong,' said independent immigration consultant Stephen Barnes. 'The Immigration Department is pretty good that way'.

But scrapping the dependent work visa had bigger-picture consequences than merely inconveniencing a few expatriates.

'Any barriers to entry restrict Hong Kong's development,' said Mathew Gollop, chief executive of recruitment company ConnectedGroup. 'If you look at industry sectors like investment banking, which has flexibility in the regional positioning of their employees, then locations such as Singapore that make it easier for expatriates on visas will obviously be more attractive.'

While not the sole reason for multinationals to choose Singapore over Hong Kong, recruiters agree the dependent work visa ban was becoming a major factor. 'The reinstatement has definitely improved the willingness of expatriates to come here,' says Guy Day, managing director of Ambition. 'Also, if people were hesitating because of the pollution, this will help.'

Richard Feldman, chairman of Mimosa Group, which has 10 food and restaurant businesses, is one of many in the business who have seen a shortage of staff with good English skills made worse by the visa ban. He had a family member who was poised to move their business from Hong Kong because their spouse could not work here.

'Originally it was done for local workers, but it harms local workers because multinationals won't send people here whose wives can't even do voluntary work,' says Mr Feldman. 'This change is really positive for the international status of our city - we can't be Asia's world city and block out the world.'

The reinstatement of the dependent visa is a shot in the arm for those needing contract and fill-in staff, especially in the skill-strapped areas such as banking and IT, adds Mr Day. 'It enriches the candidate population, and from a job-seeker's point of view they're not hitting the six-weeks sponsorship application wall every time they change job. It makes life a hell of a lot easier for employers.'

Consultants believe the reversal happened for several reasons. When the Immigration Department was considering the new Quality Migrant Admissions Scheme, which will allow 1,000 qualified foreigners to come here, they did analysis of the existing dependent visa situation.

'They found of all the 800 applications from dependents who were qualified to apply for their own working visas, only one was denied,' says Mr Barnes. 'This was because a lot of dependents were qualified and went to Immigration and applied anyway, in their own right, and they still had to do the administration,'' he added.

Immigration consultants Emigra have been inundated with queries from eager expatriates asking if they can now work legally again, says manager Latha Olavatth. She advises holders of an existing non-working dependent visa to go to Immigration Tower and get their status changed. Most new arrivals who are dependents of someone with a work permit can simply apply for a job once they have an ID card. There are exceptions, namely some categories for mainlanders and domestic helpers, she added.

Mr Barnes says it easier for dependents to get approval for more jobs. The person making the first applicant has to prove to Immigration that they have 'a special skill, knowledge or experience which are not readily available in Hong Kong - and the employer has to justify engaging a foreign national, as opposed to a local candidate,' he explains. 'But the trailing spouse does not have to do this - they get unlimited approval.'