Work permit reforms needed

Chairman of the Work Permit Board David Ritch said he believes the time has come when a full-time department can deal with work permits every working day of the year.

Sophia Harris of the Business Staffing Plan Board and Chairman of the Work Permit Board David Ritch

Sophia Harris of the Business Staffing Plan Board and Chairman of the Work Permit Board David Ritch.
Photo: Cliodhna McGowan

Mr. Ritch was speaking at a special meeting for the Cayman Islands Tourism Association in which members were briefed on the Exempt and Permanent Residency regulations of the Immigration law which came into effect in January 2004.

Mr. Ritch pointed out that traditionally the work permit system is three months behind, but recently there have been different factors which have contributed to a huge backlog amounting to 10 to 12 month delays with work permit renewals. Often employers have to submit another renewal before hearing that the first has been approved.

Contributing to the backlog was Hurricane Ivan, after which the board did not sit for a period, and an influx of an additional 10,000 work permit applications following it.

Mr. Ritch said that there are a staggering 23,000 people currently on work permits here and the board is processing 600 to 700 a week.

‘We need to look at the mechanics of it,’ he said, pointing out that the same system exists that started in 1972 when there were just over 30 people here on work permits.

However, Mr. Ritch said that the Cabinet is concerned about this problem. ‘I’m sure you’ll see proactive steps to fix this situation,’ he said.

Going forward, big decisions will need to be made. He said that many of the work permits, such as domestic helpers, dive-masters or food and beverage servers could be dealt with administratively.

Mr Ritch explained the Board is voluntary and, giving Friday as an example, it sat until 11.30pm.

However, despite the huge backlog Mr. Ritch noted that as the Board is now getting through 500 to 600 permits per week instead of 150 to 300, they are being worked through relatively quickly. A new computer programme is helping.

‘We’re whittling away at the volume in larger bites and getting letters out the door,’ he said, noting that the best this system will be is three to four months behind.

At the meeting a comprehensive presentation was given on the Immigration Law by Becky Kalahiki of Human Capital Consulting. She explained that an employee can remain on the Islands under an approved work permit for seven years. Ordinarily, after this, the Work Permit Board shall not grant or renew his work permit until two years after he has left the islands.

However, the law states that the Board can approve an ‘Exempt Employee’ to remain on-island up to nine years, consecutively, to enable them to apply for Permanent Residency (after eight years on the islands).

The presentation gave advice on how to apply for Exempt status, saying that an employer may, at the time of applying for an employee’s work permit or a renewal, nominate the employee to be ‘exempt’.

It goes on, ‘The employer denotes the number of exempt positions in the employers’ Business Staffing Plan. This does not exempt the individual person who is serving in that position. When a company applies for this individual’s work permit, the company must submit a separate application for exemption’.

Some of the criteria for exemption includes: Employee is recognised as having particular expertise in his field of practice, trade or employment; Employee is or will be a professional employee whose expertise or skills are not available in adequate measure in the islands.

If the Board finds an employee ‘exempt’, then the work permit renewals will be approved until that worker has been legally and ordinarily a resident in the islands for a period of nine consecutive years to allow them to apply for permanent residency (a person cannot apply for permanent residency until after eight years consecutively working in Cayman).

The exempt employee may not change employers until authorised by the Board.

The presentation also noted that if you haven’t been notified whether your permanent residency application has been approved or denied, you can continue to work until it has been considered. If your application is denied, you will receive one additional year for your final work permit. You can reapply for permanent residence after one year.

A roll-over review was included in the presentation, noting that at the date of the commencement of the Immigration law (1 January 2004), those resident in excess of 15 years need to apply within three years of the law for PR; those from 8-15 years need to apply within three years of the law for PR; those here seven years, but less than eight, had only one more year for a permit; those here six years, but less then seven, had only two more one-year permits; those here five years and less than six had only three more one-year permits.

Recently, some employees have been caught in the roll-over because they have not applied for their PR and another work permit cannot be issued to them.

Explaining that there are many anomalies in this law, Mr. Ritch said, ‘There are probably more holes in this than a piece of Swiss cheese.’ However, a comprehensive report has been put together outlining amendments that need to be made to clarify some areas. He said he hopes that amending legislation can become effective from the end of the first quarter of 2006.

He explained that if a person applied for a work permit in October 2004 and was entitled to one more year, the board is only now seeing this application and the year may have expired. Unfortunately this person cannot work any more unless they have a Permanent Residency application in.

Responsibility

Mr. Ritch told employers that it is their responsibility to know the law and be familiar with it in order to get applications in on time. ‘Employers and employees need to educate themselves on where they are with the law,’ he said.

He said that he sympathised with those who had been caught out by the roll-over policy, but said it is a reality.

Going forward there will be an amended form for work permits, requiring the work history of the employee, so employers will know their previous work history on the island, said Mr. Ritch. But for the moment, employers must communicate with employees to find out this information, said Sophia Harris of the Business Staffing Plan Board.

Information about the law is on the Immigration portal at www.gov.ky

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