Rollover rife with problems

The Marl Road machine has it rumoured that the major law firms wrote a letter to the current government administration requesting that all of their professional staffs be granted Key Employee status.

Whether or not this is true remains to be seen, but just the thought of this possibility can highlight some of the pressing issues this country is facing with the rollover.

The average professional Caymanian will tell you that the heated debate surrounding the rollover is not because Caymanians are xenophobes, but their collective experiences indisputably suggests that employment opportunities are skewed and that there are certain questionable practices in the workforce making it next to impossible for a Caymanian to succeed or break what his now described as the cement ceiling.

The common ‘disadvertisement’ that (a) certain groups are more qualified than Caymanians simply by virtue of their race and background (b) Caymanians are stupid, inept and lazy and expect to be given special privileges and opportunities without having to work very hard and (c) certain groups are entitled to earn more than Caymanians even though they have the same qualifications (and even when Caymanians have superior qualifications) has been used to explain Caymanian exclusion from progression.

Ironically, the legal profession is one that has a fair percentage of well qualified Caymanians, many of whom I know are smart, talented, bright, energetic and hard working.

Yet in the past few years there has been an exodus of Caymanians leaving the two major law firms and one of them commenced legal action, which is unprecedented for a Caymanian.

From my recollection, there is only one indigenous Caymanian partner at Maples and Appleby’s and two at Walkers.

In the offshore industry, firms complain of the worldwide shortage of lawyers; hedge funds lawyers in particular.

No one quite has the statistics on whether or not this is true, but amidst the raging debate a few years ago Caymanian lawyers contended that newly qualified lawyers that come to the islands by and large come with zero hedge fund experience and knowledge and once brought up to speed by the sitting foreign lawyers in Cayman, they are farmed out to the various jurisdictions that allow the firms to operate profitably.

And this is part of the issue surrounding the rollover debate in general.

Caymanians have no objections to foreign lawyers working in Cayman. But foreign lawyers that come here are trained by foreign lawyers and they train other foreign lawyers.

Caymanian professionals in general are aware of this pattern and how it operates in the industry, previous political administrations have been aware of this and the current Minister of Education and Labour is equally aware; there is therefore an understandable scepticism held by a number of Caymanians and why the status grants remain a sore topic of discussion today.

If Caymanian lawyers are trained by the best foreign lawyers the question must be asked, why aren’t there that many indigenous Caymanian partners in these firms?

It is unquestionable that these firms generate a high percentage of our government’s revenue and are key employers.

But many argue that the economic success of these firms have been inextricably linked to the creation of and support by the various arms of government, whether it is the Cayman Islands Monetary Authority or the Register of Companies; these establishments coupled with Caymanian passivity and docility, have enabled these firms to not only sustain their Caymanian office profitability, but allowed them to use the profits earned in Cayman to open offices in Europe, Asia, the Caribbean and Dubai.

If such a letter has indeed been submitted to Cabinet, it will be interesting to observe this government’s reaction and that of the Cayman Bar Association.

Caymanians are sensible people and are intimately aware of the dependent nature of the economy. But Caymanians have now developed a sour cynicism toward the textured ads in the newspapers (where the salaries and job description differ depending on the country in which the ads are placed) crafted to suit the needs of this or that friend to ensure the employment of this or that sister or brother or for this or that person to retain his permit; Caymanians are accustomed to leaving the interviews knowing that they went through the motion to ensure that a foreign person is justified in obtaining a job.

So, why develop an economy in which there is no real (or only a few) Caymanian participation or partner-shipping? This question was recently raised the other day when articled clerks were up in arms about the difficulties obtaining articles in these firms, or so they felt.

The offshore legal profession is but one example of why surrounding the rollover debate. Caymanians will tell you, however, that this occurs across the employment spectrum. But what is equally clear is that in a dependent economy such as ours, having immigration reforms creating Key Employees will only buy us cheap optimism and further stratify and divide the community; it does not guarantee parity in salaries, opportunities to gain the tools and skills that garner success or progression in the workplace.

It can and will backfire and encourage foreign employers to find other ways to undermine and manipulate any such immigration policy, for example, by writing to Cabinet for special privileges. In fact, it is not a formula for nation building (if this is what we want, ultimately).

A. Steve McField