An overseas posting can be an exciting experience but if you accompany your soldier, will you be able to maintain your career or find a job? Jill Misson reports…
Host nation agreements set out the terms under which a country’s armed forces can operate overseas but don’t cover spousal employment. These appear outdated for today’s army families, where both partners expect to be able to work.
“It’s no longer the case that spouses are content to stay at home and rely on the service person to be the breadwinner,” says AFF Employment & Training Specialist Lucy Ritchie.
“Having employment of their own is increasingly important, both financially in this current climate, but also for personal identity and self-worth.”
This rings true for Zoë Herron, who worked as a Community Liaison Officer (CLO) in Norway. She says: “Moving to new places can be really isolating so it’s important for me to work so that I can meet new people. I love to contribute towards family expenses and have spending money that I have earned myself.”
Zoë also set up a hair and beauty business so had to navigate the challenges of acquiring a business licence, opening a bank account, finding insurance and understanding the Norwegian tax system.
Do your research
It pays to do your homework in advance as the type of assignment can affect what employment opportunities are available and there can be differences between individual locations within a country. Lucy advises caution when asking around: “Everyone’s situation is different so don’t make assumptions based on what you have heard.”
According to the Haythornthwaite Review of Armed Forces Incentivisation (June 2023) some families are being discouraged from seeking overseas opportunities due to being left out of pocket after relocation costs and loss of spousal income. More serving personnel are now choosing to go overseas unaccompanied. The report mentions that “the difficulty for partners to find employment when accompanying personnel is a key demotivator”.
Recommendations in the report include funding for professional training for spouses, access to civil service remote roles overseas, and work with global companies, particularly those signed up to the Armed Forces Covenant.
Sharn Morrissey, a CLO in Fiji, wishes she had sought advice before leaving the UK. Although she had worked in childcare for 21 years, most recently as a teaching assistant, she wasn’t able to find a job in education.
Sharn says: “I wrongly assumed that it would be easy to get work in a school here. It is very difficult for a spouse to gain employment outside of the British High Commission as the government won’t issue a work permit if they think the job you are applying for can be done by a Fijian.”
Spousal employment opportunities in the overseas space are more complicated following the UK’s exit from the EU. A spouse living in Belgium says: “I want to avoid large gaps in my employment history but since Brexit you need to apply for a working visa.”
Group Captain Justin Shearing, Commander Global Support Organisation (GSO), Strategic Command, says: “For overseas assignments not at a Permanent Joint Operating Base, there are some limited opportunities for spousal employment in administrative and support roles within the GSO in certain supported NATO locations.
“Whilst living under the NATO Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) does not confer any employment rights for spouses accompanying service personnel, it does not preclude it. While navigation of host nation regulation and requirements may be complex, and this will vary from country to country, it is possible, and if this is something you are interested in, it is highly recommended that this is thoroughly researched before deploying.”
If you can get a local job overseas, the salary may not be what you are expecting. A spouse working as a teaching assistant in Cyprus told A&Y: “I took a hit on my wage coming from the same job in the UK. It’s degrading to be paid below the UK minimum wage when it’s an MOD school. The staff are amazing, but we feel very undervalued. With Local Overseas Allowance (LOA) going down and the cost of living going up, I have no choice but to work.”
AFF Money & Allowances Specialist Claire Hallam says: “LOA is designed to contribute to the additional cost of living when overseas compared to the UK for necessary items like food and clothing. It is not intended to compensate for the loss of spousal employment.
“We see families who budget based on the rate of LOA before going overseas but it is important to know that rates can go up and down so should not be used for a financial plan.”
For most jobs on camp, there are restrictions on the level of pay, as they need to reflect the local economy. Locally paid employment may also attract local tax or social security payments. There are no tax protections or exemptions offered to those with dependant status under the NATO SOFA.
Although remote working has become increasingly common post-pandemic, army spouses and partners should not assume they can do so from anywhere in the world due to the complexity of host nation agreements. AFF is working with the other families federations to push the MOD for clear guidance and FAQs.
Katharine Morgan hoped to work remotely in Cyprus but, six months into the posting, her UK employer withdrew support due to tax concerns. She arranged a sabbatical but had to appeal to be granted permission to seek alternative employment while overseas.
Katharine has taken a lower-paid position on camp but says: “I was gutted. I loved my job. It gave me a sense of purpose and was extremely fulfilling. I was really concerned about the loss of financial independence and how we would cope on one wage.”
Whether working remotely, locally or self-employed, it is important to seek advice from HMRC and check with the overseas tax authority. UK employers need to check if they have any tax responsibilities and that they are not establishing a tax footprint in the overseas location. There are currently cases of US military spouses owing thousands in tax back payments as a result of working without guidance whilst overseas.
The Armed Forces Covenant Fund Trust is funding a project to provide an Overseas Employment Guide giving families access to, and an understanding of, the requirements for being able to work in overseas locations.
Sarah Walker, chair of the Partner Employment Working Group and head of Supporting the Unsung Hero, says: “The guide will be an online resource to help families understand the rules and regulations for working whilst on overseas postings, initially covering six European countries and expanding further later.”
Some spouses and partners have changed career in order to stay in employment. Hannah was a qualified dental nurse but when she was unable to complete Continuing Professional Development to remain registered, she became a self-employed virtual assistant.
She says: “I had career coaching through Recruit for Spouses and avoided gaps on my CV by volunteering. I have been fortunate to fall into a role that is flexible and working from home. I have come to appreciate that having one specific job for your whole working life isn’t necessarily normal now.”
Rachel Bishop was a trained lawyer but when she was unable to work remotely for her UK employer in Germany, she pursued other options and is now an HR consultant.
Rachel advises using the time overseas to prepare for returning to the UK: “If you can’t work, can you develop your existing skills by studying? Can you keep in touch with developments in your industry via specialised forums? Can you keep yourself visible and relevant by utilising social media such as LinkedIn?
“If you find work in a different role whilst overseas, think about those skills you are gaining and look at how to sell them to future employers. Seek out advice from recruitment specialists who can help you translate your skills and development into effective and attractive job applications when you return.”
Whatever happens with your overseas employment, remember to explore and enjoy your location.
Lucy from AFF says: “Considering the potential loss of your employment when posted overseas is an important aspect to balance against what can be a once in a lifetime opportunity to take a career break, experience a different culture, develop new skills and explore.”