Watershed reached in Cayman

I read Mr. Steve McField’s letter in your newspaper of January 10, 2007, with interest because I believe for the first time we have seen a candid and respectful look at the possible origin of the rollover and why it remains so contentious.

Mr. McField is correct in saying that Caymanians are not xenophobic; we may be cruel to each other, but as far back as my memory takes me, Caymanians have by and large been accommodating and gracious, to a fault.

I believe that over the years Caymanian silence has been misinterpreted as their acceptance of and compliance with what they consider to be unacceptable practices in the public and private sector and their intelligence underestimated.

Successive government administrations have received many complaints about what goes on in the workplace within the offshore and the service industries, which they dealt with through the immigration department.

Some of these complaints were domestic related, but increasingly what was then the Caymanian Protection Board and the Immigration Board received other legitimate complaints, which showed clear disparities in the employment practices towards Caymanians and non-Caymanians. In fact, the previous Minister of Labour tried to address some of the concerns through a new labour and employment legislation, which evaporated since the coming of the present political regime.

The more one thinks about the present rollover policy however it can be admitted that it has its problems, because at its core it tries to (1) remedy certain employment practices that in this day and age is not only uncivilized and reprehensible, but attracts serious repercussions in other countries and (2) control permanent population growth.

As a Minister of Cabinet and a Back Bench member of parliament I often heard Caymanians, skilled and unskilled alike, speak of how they are treated with less dignity than their expatriate colleagues in the private sector, how their salaries differed significantly from their expatriate colleagues and how in many instances they often train their qualified expatriate colleague who ultimately receive promotions and bonuses and they did not.

Caymanians have said that they lacked the freedom to bring their concerns to their employers, whether it is because they did not have degrees or due to their fear of the possible backlash and fallout that comes with this.

As a result, many Caymanians raised their employment issues with their elected representatives (and not necessarily the Caymanian human resource person in these companies) hoping for redress that they felt they had no chance of getting at work and that their anonymity remained in tact.

Despite it not being a condition to boast about nor one that has to continue permanently, Caymanians are not by nature confrontational or aggressive (although the talk shows suggest that this is slowly changing).

But will the rollover change or challenge an employer’s employment behaviour?

It will encourage a more transient society (although some believe that this is what we already have) and employment recruitment agencies will do well financially.

But how it will make the average expatriate who come to these islands and discover lucrative opportunities share his or her knowledge with a Caymanian colleague?

Will it cause these persons to leave these islands in the created environment of the Key Employees that fall into the professional category and are proven difficult to attract and retain in the Islands and exemption, with their possible right to permanent residence?

What we have seen is the contrary; the expatriate will retain the skill and open their own local business.

As politicians we are told that this is because it is usually the expatriate employee in any case that will have had the access to information, experience and the client base.

How will the current rollover policy change an employer’s behaviour unless the current Cabinet is truly committed to change the current employment practices through stringent legislation with investigative powers and stiff financial repercussion?

Four times since 2004 these types of employers have ignored compliance with the law to submit Staffing Plans by a set date and four times the PPM government have rolled over and amended the law to accommodate this open defiance – it is now 2007. Such capitulation casts doubtful shadows on the future.

We as Caymanians should also remember what the Bahamian Prime Minister Pindling tried to do in the early 60s when he insisted that employers employ Bahamians to deal with the escalating racial and employment tensions.

The employers fled the Bahamas to the islands that time forgot. This departure brought a staggering halt to the Bahamian economy but the Bahamians were fortunate to use the economic drought to push education, entrepreneurship and self esteem to the top of the Bahamian agenda. They were fortunate the current information age had not taken root so they had time to jumpstart their economy.

This is also why Mr. McField’s letter is interesting: how would Cayman respond today if the economy came to a halt because of the departure of the Key Employee to Turks and Caicos, the BVI and Anguilla (these citizens incidentally are not quite as passive or docile as Caymanians)?

How would our leaders respond to any threats (veiled or otherwise) made by private sector members that are willing to put their competitive differences aside to have a concerted audience with Cabinet and the Cabinet discover that education and hard work although important do not guarantee Caymanian corporate leadership?

Interestingly enough, it has been reported that qualified Caymanian professionals have had to resort to political assistance to achieve their rightful position or have thrown up their hands in despair and frustration and left their chosen profession altogether, in their own island.

As Mr. McField said, some current Ministers are all too familiar with these themselves.

We live in very perplexing, contradictory and decadent times with myriad uncertainties.

The UDP government was ushered out of office primarily because, we are told, of the status grants.

Will the voting population send the PPM government out of office over the discriminatory Key Employee status grants?

This insider-outsider divide is obviously coming to a head and will have to be sensibly addressed if our economy is to continue to prosper.

A former colleague Minister summarized the situation thus, ‘Institutional degradation and humiliation of Caymanians on the one hand and the perceived lack of security of tenure and political freedom from an expatriate perspective on the other.’

This will require critical intelligence, intellectual depth and courage by government to confront an unpopular situation to ultimately resolve this and serve the greater good. It is quite clear a watershed has been reached in Caymanian society.

Gilbert McLean