As they have throughout history, countries continue to grapple with the vexatious issue of immigration, and on this point the Cayman Islands, of course, is no exception. Immigration is a sensitive topic that strikes at visceral convictions about cultural identity and local autonomy. Further, especially in Cayman, the practical implications of immigration policy are inseparably intertwined with the economy and government revenue.
Some people see an inherent conflict of interest in government’s relationship with expatriate workers – considering government’s reliance on work permit fees as a major source of revenue – and accordingly doubt government’s willingness to enforce policies ensuring that Caymanians have the right of first refusal when it comes to job opportunities. On the other hand, the general consensus from a broader perspective is that handcuffing businesses by way of high fees and draconian measures will hurt the country’s economy and therefore Caymanians as well.
In September 2011, the government suspended the so-called ‘rollover’ policy, with its seven-year work permit scheme and key employee status. Expatriates who have reached the seven-year limit have been allowed to stay on Term Limit Exemption Permits, which expire 28 October this year.
As of 31 December, nearly 1,400 foreign workers received the exemption permits. That represents nearly half of non-Caymanian work permit holders who normally would have had to leave the Islands between October 2011 and December 2012.
In June 2012, then-premier McKeeva Bush tabled a report by the Term Limit Review Committee containing recommendations to do away with ‘key employees’, allow all foreign workers the chance to apply for permanent residence, and allow non-resident workers to stay for 10 years before having to leave the country.
Whoever is in control of government after the May election will be in the position to determine immigration policy for the next four years. Hence, political candidates are sharing their views on the topic.
George Town independent Stefan Baraud said, “We’ve depended on work permit fees in this country for quite some time. If we continue to place an emphasis on fees and continue to drive the fees up in the country, it’s certainly going to have a negative impact on business in the country. It directly affects Caymanians. It affects job opportunities in this country for Caymanians.”
According to the 2012/13 Annual Plan and Estimates budget document, government anticipated raising some $57.4 million from work permit fees during the current fiscal year. That’s nearly 10 per cent of government’s projected coercive revenues for the year. Due to hikes in work permit fees in various categories, the revenue raised from work permit fees was projected to increase by $9.4 million compared to 2011/12.
Minister and Bodden Town independent Mark Scotland said, “Government is not intentionally dependent on work permit fees for revenue. That it forms a big part of revenue, that is a fact, but you could say that by increasing work permit fees, that should be a deterrent and encourage persons to employ Caymanians more.”
People’s Progressive Movement candidate Kenneth Bryan of George Town said, “I think that we all can agree that we don’t have enough Caymanians to fill all the opportunities, but where the biggest problem comes into play is making sure those individuals who are responsible to give Caymanians the first opportunity, not the second, the third or the fourth, but the first opportunity, are doing their jobs.”
Bryan said enforcement of the immigration law is the primary issue, but that needs to be addressed from the board level. “That’s why the Progressives intend to take away the work permit process from the work permit board and make it an administrative board. The work permits that fail would go through an appeals process. That’s when they would go to the work permit board, which takes away the human element from the work permit process that can be corrupted,” he said.
Fellow George Town PPM candidate Joey Hew said, “I am of the belief that we should remove the term limit on certain categories and lay out well defined policies that would be handled by paid personnel that understand the law, restrictions and criteria set out in the policy. There should only be the need for an appointed board to hear appeals on the more delicate matters and the term limit decisions.”
United Democratic Party candidate Jonathan Piercy said politicians and boards aren’t entirely responsible for unemployment problems. “It is always easy and convenient to blame the politicians, but at the end of the day we all recognise that the boards aren’t filled by persons who are elected to office. Many of these boards, first of all, they’re relying on statistical information that they have at that time,” he said.
Piercy said, “While I recognise the high growing unemployment in the Cayman Islands, many of those individuals unfortunately when you speak to them have yet to register with the Department of Labour. If you don’t do that, then we don’t know who is unemployed. We need to develop a database where employers have access to unemployed Caymanians and they can pick, choose and sort of refuse what is available in the pool.”
Hew said there should be different standards for large businesses and small businesses that may have limited resources or particular needs. He thinks large businesses can and should do more to train Caymanians to fill positions when the become available.
George Town independent Winston Connolly, who is affiliated with political group Coalition for Cayman, also said the reality is there aren’t enough Caymanians to fill every single employment position in the country.
“Right now the Caymanian population is only one-third of the total size of the population. We will always have immigration fees to rely on, but what we should be doing is empowering our people to be able to take some of those jobs, and that to me should be priority number one in any government,” he said.
Scotland said nearly every young Caymanian graduating from high school should be looking for more schooling or training, rather than trying to jump into the workforce straight away.
“Sometimes we give persons false expectations. What I hear often is every year that we have ‘x hundred’ number of youngsters coming out of high school, where are we going to get them employed. No child out of high school should be looking for a job. Most every child should be going on to some form of tertiary education, whether it be vocational, technical or college or otherwise,” he said.
West Bay independent Tara Rivers, who also is affiliated with Coalition for Cayman, advocated for a “two-pronged approach with a third element” – namely education and law enforcement, plus keeping business fees as low as possible.
“In order to ensure that we don’t have a situation where government is constantly putting higher taxes and higher fees on business, we need to look at controlling government expenditure and ensuring there’s no wastage in the system,” she said.
Bodden Town independent Gregg Anderson (also endorsed by Coalition for Cayman) said a immigration, particularly by people with specialised skills, is “inevitable and to a certain extent necessary”.
Anderson said the Immigration Department should focus on certain matters, while employment matters should be spun out to a different entity.
“Where reform is concerned, I believe that our Immigration Department should deal solely with immigration, nationality and passport matters. Immigration controls were not intended to be, and cannot be used as, a means to manage the size and composition of our population. I believe what we need is a combination of population management measures ran in conjunction with a new immigration regime,” he said.
Anderson said, “A separate department should handle the matters of employment, [permanent residency] and Caymanian status e.g. Department of Labour/Human Resources. The latter department should theoretically have a better grasp of our available local human capital and be in a better decision to decide on the granting of work permits etc. I don’t support all of the proposals of the Immigration Review Team as it deals with only one aspect of our overall situation. Immigration and naturalisation and population management need to be an integral part of an overall national strategic development plan which is sorely lacking at present. Patching one hole in a leaking dam with multiple leaks doesn’t prevent the leakage of water or a dam burst.”