New work permit board chair seeks efficiency

Sherri Bodden-Cowan took over as the chairperson of Cayman’s Work Permit Board in December, and she didn’t waste any time in implementing some fairly major changes.

In attempts to ease the burden on volunteer members and to process permits faster, the newly-appointed chairperson has advised government that the entity will divide into subcommittees to handle non-controversial permit applications.

Bodden-Cowan also hopes that three new administrative staffers will soon be added to the Immigration Department to assist in processing permit applications.

Right now, board members are meeting for two full days a week trying to sort through mundane clerical work, she said. The efforts are taking time away from what the local attorney and long-time government advisor on immigration issues feels is the board’s main purpose.

“Where there is no Caymanian that has applied for the job, [board members are] calculating someone’s term limit, checking the file to make sure the position was advertised, checking the file to make sure they don’t have another child; basically, technical administrative things that, in my view, are a waste of time,” Bodden-Cowan says.

“We’ve got ten Caymanians sitting here doing this sort of mundane work for two full days a week. That’s crazy.”

The Work Permit Board is one of four politically-appointed entities in the Cayman Islands that decide on various immigration-related applications. The Work Permit Board primarily approves or denies applications for foreign workers seeking employment in Cayman. It also handles some applications from smaller businesses for the designation of key employee status for some foreign workers.

Key employee status is a designation that allows a foreign worker to remain in Cayman long enough to apply for permanent residence, the right to live in Cayman for the rest of their lives. 

Bodden-Cowan says that the three subcommittees of the permit board will handle different applications: the first will consider the grant of work permits where no Caymanian has applied for the position, the second will consider renewal of work permits where no Caymanian has applied for the job, and the third will hear applications to change work permits – issues like adding dependants to a permit in a case of a child being born, for instance.

Hopefully, this will leave the full ten-member board to meet once a week to consider only applications where a Caymanian has applied for a job and not been successful for some reason, or applications for key employee status.

“There is still a place for a lay board…but we reckon on any agenda that 90 per cent of the agenda is the mundane, no issue, nod it through, there is no debate here,’ she says.

The chairmanship of the Work Permit Board is arguably the hottest hot seat among government’s 100-plus appointed boards. Bodden-Cowan has technically never held the position, although she was both chair and deputy chair of its forerunner – the Immigration Board – as well as the chairperson of the Business Staffing Plan board.

“With immigration, everything is very emotional,” she says.

There have already been public rumblings about conflicts of interest Bodden-Cowan might have as a leader of government’s Immigration Review Team and also as a manager at a law firm that handles some immigration cases.

Bodden-Cowan says local attorneys David Ritch and Sophia Harris have both previously served on various immigration boards at the same time they were members of the government Immigration Review Team. She says if any conflicts of interest occur with a client her law firm represents coming before the Work Permit Board, she will simply recuse herself from the meeting while the case is heard.

As far political appointments go, Mrs. Bodden-Cowan says it is typical in Cayman for ruling governments to select their supporters to staff various advisory and statutory boards. She said she felt previous comments made by Premier McKeeva Bush regarding certain immigration boards not following the wishes of the elected government had been misconstrued.

“From what I understand he said in the house, he talked about immigration boards in general – not one particular board,” she said. “This needs to be clarified.”

“I don’t think anyone is entitled to sit in any of these positions for too long, because you tend to have one view and having a fresh look at it is a good idea,” Mrs. Bodden-Cowan said. “The [board] members, just from my initial meetings with them, feel that they’ve been dealt an unfair criticism because they have…out of a backlog of 6,000 applications gotten it down to 1,000. They’ve worked very hard.”

Limited time offer
Bodden-Cowan, who runs a local law firm, also told government members that there is a time limit on her appointment as Work Permit Board chairperson.

“What I’ve spoken to the Cabinet about is that I would accept the position as chair of the work permit board only for a period of six months,” she says.

In addition to her law practice, Bodden-Cowan will remain the head of the government’s Immigration Review Team as well as the Deputy Chairperson of the United Democratic Party – the current ruling political party in the Cayman Islands.

To say that’s a busy schedule may be something of an understatement.

“What I have asked them is to try and identify a younger Caymanian attorney who could come in and understudy me and either take over as chair when I leave…or this person would obviously continue on the board, so that there would be some continuity on the legal side,” Bodden-Cowan says, adding that the initial board appointed by the government had no lawyers