Steven Jakobi of Fair Trials Abroad has a dossier of cases of British workers abroad, many of them admin staff, who have been innocent victims of local laws. He points to the example of a British secretary who, two years ago, was imprisoned in Bahrain when the international company she worked for went bankrupt. The practice of seizing employees while awaiting repayment of debts may seem barbaric, but it is entirely legitimate within Bahrain and a number of other states in the Middle East.
However tempting the job, it clearly pays to do a bit of basic research before leaving the relative security of your homeland, for having landed in a country you are automatically agreeing to abide by local laws and ignorance and naivete are rarely acceptable excuses. "The jobs PAs go for may sound great but sometimes people rush into them without checking," warns Kathleen Walker Shaw, the European Officer for the GMB union. She has seen a lot of secretaries underestimating the difference in a woman's status abroad, to their personal cost.
Jane Oriel (not her real name), a PA for a big international oil firm in Abu Dhabi, discovered shortly after arriving that she was breaking the law merely by living with her partner. Cohabitation outside marriage is forbidden in several Gulf countries and penalties are severe. "If they had found out about my boyfriend and me living together we would have been in big trouble," Jane recalls.
Another danger in some parts of the world is the threat of being classed as a spy. Five years ago Toby Maude, an accountant, was working for Shell Oil in Nigeria when he was arrested under suspicion of espionage, having taken a picture of some local police. "The Nigerian Military Intelligence took me off for interrogation at an Air Force base. Luckily another British guy saw this happen and got a message to the head of finance at Shell, who helped secure my release."
The Foreign and Commonwealth Office has limited advice on the dos and don'ts of working abroad. The recommendation to register with the local embassy and to keep in touch are included in their leaflet British Consular Services Abroad; however there then follows an alarming list of things British Consuls are unable to do. They cannot, for example, intervene in court proceedings, get people out of prison, give legal advice, or ensure that Britons in jail are treated any better than nationals. One Foreign Office spokeswoman put it bluntly: "We don't really have general advice for people travelling or working abroad because it should be common sense, and because it varies from country to country."
Sabina Stewart, a senior consultant for the Crone Corkill recruitment consultancy in London, which deals specifically with international postings, says employees cannot make enough checks when moving abroad to work. "It is extremely difficult to be 100 per cent certain about a job or the conditions abroad, unless you can check it out personally before signing any contracts, so it pays to be as vigilant as possible before you go," she says. "We take great care in vetting companies before sending candidates to work for them. If the company is a Blue Chip it isn't a problem but if we are dealing with entrepreneurs, for example, we usually ask for our fee or a percentage of our fee up front. Their reaction gives us a good indication of whether the company is serious about the contract of employment."
Luckily there are many satisfied customers. Barbara Murray, who worked as a PA in Bermuda for four years, loved every minute of her stay. "I'm very adventurous and I love the sun, so living and working in Bermuda suited me down to the ground," she enthuses. But even Barbara warns against leaping into the unknown before assessing your own needs: "It's easy to feel isolated when you are surrounded by hundreds of miles of ocean; after all it's not as if you can just pop home for the weekend when you get homesick."
What to Do
Do try to go through a reliable agency
Do research prospective employers/companies and your country of choice
Do be clear about the nature of your job
Do check under which country's employment law your position will fall
Do ensure that adequate accommodation is either provided or easily available
Do register with the local embassy on your arrival
Do find out the provisions for emergency evacuations
Don't go on a whim
Don't go without adequate paperwork (visas, insurance, medical certificates, etc)
Don't assume western laws and attitudes apply
Don't take risks with health
Don't ignore Foreign Office warnings
Don't abuse local laws and customs