It has become apparent that when you live in another country as an expat you have but one sole role- to work. After all, what business do you have being there if you are not contributing to the country in any way shape or form? While on some level I knew this, this truth has become more real since living as an expat.
Why work abroad?
For the last 5 years of my time in London I had itchy feet. I was ready to leave, ready to explore other places. I found living and working in London to be hard work. Londoners work incredibly hard for the life they live. But it doesn’t necessarily result in any financial or professional gains that afford a more affluent lifestyle. It literally was the rat race but with no finish line. So my husband and I dreamed of far off lands that could afford us a more comfortable lifestyle, with a nicer home, a safer environment and the opportunity to experience a better quality of life (whatever that means). But you can’t just get on a plane to said far off land with your suitcases and plonk yourself down to call it home. There is a process that is involved.
A working visa to far off lands
Relocation via work is quite common in expat worlds. In most cases except perhaps Europe, the opportunity to relocate arises through work. Even commonwealth countries expect an immigrant to contribute to the country’s skill shortage eventually. The Middle East is an extreme example of this situation. For example, your visa, accommodation, bank account and worse-permission to leave the country, are all processed by your employment.
Singapore, on the other hand, is on the opposite end of this spectrum. Government laws actually protect foreign workers from being exploited by employers. One way is by requesting a painful declaration of the last 10 years of employment complete with your pay. A way to ensure that your current employer pays in line with what you were valued at in previous jobs.
Some countries have steps towards making you a citizen. Canada, New Zealand and Australia are the obvious choices that have immigration pathways to fully integrate the foreigner into the country. Singapore also offers expats the opportunity to become a permanent residence which affords them access to more services reserved for locals. It is worth researching labour laws and expat rights in a country before you accept a contract, or even having someone look over your employment contract prior to accepting. Because there is nothing worse than having your dreams of living abroad turn into a nightmare.
A price tag on life
When most people hear of the expat life it sounds glamorous and adventurous. Perhaps it’s harder to sympathise with the expat who whinges when they chose the life less ordinary. But remember all this came at a price.
What did the expat sell for a life of blue skies and champagne brunches?
Depending on the country, most expats don’t experience labour rights similar to that of home. They are only protected by the skeletal umbrella of basic labour laws the country possesses. In countries like Qatar, labour laws are practically non-existent which enables employers to run wild exploiting employees. Singapore has a more comprehensive set of labour laws protecting employees. However, companies do still try to exploit employees relying on expat ignorance.
Annual leave, sick leave and maternity leave are all at the discretion of the employer, usually allocated sparingly. to compensate, nannies are hired for 50 days of maternity leave (sometimes given unpaid). Maids are hired to offset the lack hours in the day lost to 20hr work days and weekends. Pricey private healthcare is used as the only option available to Foreigners who are not privy to local healthcare. Generally companies will offer this as part of their relocation package. But there are those that don’t, which can be a costly business to cover.
So while the expat life may include nannies, maids and private healthcare, it came at a price. A lot of your life is in the hands of your employer as an expat, which can at times make you feel owned. If you don’t have work (as in the case of a trailing partner) it can feel quite isolating. Life can fluctuate from feeling like a vacation to feeling like an unwanted guest, with imposed visa runs and in some cases little or no access to bank accounts.
Our dream of living abroad has not turned into a nightmare. However as my husband experienced unemployment through relocation, we did experience some of the obstacles mentioned above brought on by limits to our rights in the country. For example, in Qatar you can’t work without a visa and dependent visas aren’t processed often by employers, whereas in Singapore, dependent visas for married couples are processed much easier allowing the trailing spouse the ability to work immediately. And so our Middle Eastern adventures were cut short due to a lack of rights stemming from unemployment.
What you will experience, no matter what country you land in, is that work life culture won’t be like home. Standards of work expectations will be very different and you will most likely feel like a fish out of water as you try to establish how to work within these new parameters.
From our experience the expat life is clearly about money and how much of a contribution you can make to a country or business. After all, you are guest in that country and you need to earn your keep. But they say hard work pays off eventually…
Feature photo credit: Corey Schadt via unsplash