Tharindu Paranathanthri felt optimistic about moving to Ireland with his partner, in part, because of what he read online.
Government websites made it seem as if it would be straightforward for him to work, while she did her PhD. But that hasn’t been the case, he says.
He has a Stamp 3, which means he can look for work and then apply for a permit once he has a job offer. Which he did.
It was taking too long for the Department of Business to issue it though, he says. So his prospective employer pulled out.
They apologised, but said they had to give the job to somebody else. “I very much understand the employer,” he says. “They were very fair.”
Paranathanthri isn’t alone. Only a small percentage of those who accompany their partners from outside the European Union here to Ireland manage to secure work permits, government figures show.
In 2017, the Irish Naturalisation and Immigration Service (INIS) issued 8,423 Stamp 3s. That same year, 788 Stamp 3 holders applied for work permits, and the Department of Business issued 590 permits. That’s 7 percent.
“That is very discouraging,” says Paranathanthri, who has a master’s degree in finance from a university in Sri Lanka and is trained as a chartered accountant.
Struggling to Work
Figures for earlier years show similar gaps between the stamps issued, and the work permits that people then go on to get – although there has been a slight increase in the figures.
It’s also important to note that those who get work permits each year might have gotten their Stamp 3s in earlier years, so the figures don’t necessarily relate to exactly the same people.
In 2015, INIS issued 6,630 Stamp 3s. Meanwhile, 399 people applied for work permits and 276 were issued. That’s 4.2 percent.
In 2016, INIS issued 7,204 Stamp 3s. And 538 people applied for work permits, and 363 got them. That’s 5 percent.
A spokesperson for the Department of Business said there are several reasons for the gap between the number of applications for work permits and the number issued.
They might “have been refused, cancelled, withdrawn, awaiting further information or are being processed”, he said.
There might also be some duplication as people sometimes resubmit for permits, after being refused.
Refusals can be because the applicants don’t include the right documents, or because employers haven’t done a “labour market needs test”, which involves advertising the job vacancy in Ireland and the European Union first, he said.
Paranathanthri isn’t alone in having a lost a job offer because of the permit process.
Bronwen Raymer said she was recently offered a job with a branch in a network of dental clinics.
She has background in healthcare administration, and used to manage a primary-care clinic in Seattle, where she and her partner lived before.
She thought it wouldn’t take too long to her permit, as it had been swift for her husband, who works for a US multinational and is on a critical-skills permit.
But when she submitted the application based off her Stamp 3 status, and got in a queue, she quickly realised that it was going to take longer than she had thought.
She put it in on 23 April. “It still hasn’t been processed,” she said.
In the meantime, after a couple of months had passed, her almost-employer said that they needed to fill the position. So, they couldn’t wait longer.
“I understand that,” says Raymer. “She has a business to run as well.” But she cried, ate ice cream, and tried to work out what to do next.
The Department of Business’s Employment Permits Section says applications for employment permits “must be received at least 12 weeks before the proposed employment start date”, a department spokesperson said.
Paranathanthri says it takes too long at the moment for the department to process applications. “I believe this is the main problem, the main bottleneck that affects Stamp 3 people,” he said.
There is a scheme for “trusted partners”, though: big-time employers who are able to get their permits processed faster, he says. But even they face a substantial wait.
“The Employment Permits Section of the Department [of Business] is currently processing Trusted Partner applications received on 24th May 2018 and Standard applications received on 3rd April 2018,” the department spokesperson said.
Maybe issuing a temporary permit, or a letter so people can work while their permit application is being processed might help, suggests Paranathanthri. “That was proposed by people.”
Some have said that. because of the difficulties they faced with the work-permit system, their move to Ireland has made them dependent on the spouses for everything, from buying milk to covering the rent.
Raymer says that, like many, her identity was tied up with her career.
Now, she is trying to make the most of it, trying to work out how to become part of the city around her, to integrate, without being able to work.
She and her partner are now a one-income household, and they can pay the bills, “but we can’t save money as we did before, it’s not feasible to build for the future”, she said.
She’s now trying to fill her time. Looking at volunteering. “I’m grasping at straws. Doing a lot of housekeeping. I’ve been cooking a lot. […] We’ve thought about having a baby.”
Lobbying for Change
Right now, Ireland is ranked as a “second category” country by the Permits Foundation, a Netherlands-based group that lobbies for more open permits so that partners of international staff may work abroad, too.
Other countries in the European Union are signed up to the EU Blue Card, which is a Europe-wide work permit that lets professionals from outside the EU live and work anywhere in the EU.
Spouses automatically get a work permit too, says Michiel van Campen, the executive director of the foundation. “That’s the ideal situation,” he says. “That’s what we are striking for in other countries as well.”
The foundation made submissions to the Irish government’s recent consultation on policies around economic migration, he says. The Department of Business is currently conducting “a review of economic migration policies underpinning the current employment permits system and a report is expected within the coming weeks”, the department spokesperson said.
Often, people make counter arguments about the effects on local labour markets, says van Campen. But the number of spouses looking to work aren’t that large, he says. “That’s such a small number.”
Companies also still have to want to hire the person, and see them as right for a post. “It’s still up to the employer to decide,” he says.
Van Campen used to work for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in the Netherlands, and traveled the world with his family and wife.
The first question his wife, with a background in children’s physiotherapy, would ask was whether she would be able to work somewhere.
“It really is for a lot of spouses crucial,” he says.