Ivan changed the face of Cayman

 Franz Manderson usually finds himself a bit too busy these days for reminiscing, but the memories of Hurricane Ivan and the months that followed its passing are something the civil service’s number two man says he’ll never forget.

“I recall the lines outside the door down the sidewalk at the Immigration Department,” Mr. Manderson said in a recent interview with the Observer on Sunday. “It didn’t go away after two weeks. It lasted for months and months.”

Hurricane Ivan was forever to change the size and makeup of the Cayman Islands population.

According to population estimates released by the Cayman Islands government, some 44,000 people called the Islands home in 2003. That number dropped to just over 35,000 in the months following Hurricane Ivan’s passage in September 2004.

What happened in the next five years can only be described as a population explosion. In a 2008 survey, the Economics and Statistics Office found that more than 57,000 people were believed to be living here.

Recent estimates compiled by the Observer using statistics from the National Assessment of Living Conditions and Immigration data put that number at somewhere between 60,000 and 65,000 today.

Assuming the 60,000 estimate is correct, the Cayman Islands population has grown 36 per cent inside of just five years.

That tremendous growth was, to some extent necessary, according to Mr. Manderson.

“There certainly was a huge spike in the need for work permit holders to come in…for repair, for construction, for redevelopment for new buildings,” he said. “We had people that we really didn’t have a lot of before, people with different skills. There was a huge demand across the board.”

It wasn’t just construction related. There were insurers, surveyors, even an increase in work permits sought for domestic helpers.

“Without that influx of foreign help there can be no doubt that Cayman wouldn’t have recovered as quickly as it did,” Mr. Manderson said.

The continued influx in labour over the next year or two had, and continues to have, a significant impact on the Cayman Islands. Estimates from the previous government put the number of work permits held in Cayman during 2004 at about 19,000. By late 2008 that number had grown to more than 26,000, although a declining economy has more recently brought the numbers down to roughly 24,200 work permits.

The influx also changed the makeup of nationalities living in the Islands significantly.

In 2004, Jamaicans made up more than half (52%) of all work permit holders in the Islands. By this year, that had fallen to 42 per cent.

The number of Filipinos staying in Cayman on work permits in 2004 was about 1,600. By this year, that number grew to more than 2,732, a 58 per cent increase.

Other nationalities of work permit holders that have grown significantly since Hurricane Ivan struck include those from the United Kingdom (18 per cent), Indians (59 per cent), Colombians (64 per cent), and Australians (96 per cent).

The numbers of Hondurans here on work permits has dropped off significantly since Ivan, by about 35 per cent. The number of Canadians and Americans here on permits did not change significantly over the last five years.

Mr. Manderson admits managing huge lines of foreign workers in the months after Ivan was a challenge that seriously overstretched the immigration department’s resources.

“The department is always busy, but Hurricane Ivan took it to a new level that I’d never seen before,” he said.

The large influx led to a fair bit of abuse in the work permit system, he said.

“People had heard that the Cayman Islands was in a bad state and were basically applying for work permits they didn’t need to get their friends and family into the Islands,” Mr. Manderson said. “People who could not afford to hire construction companies wanted to get into the business of hiring their own work force.”

Immigration officers were forced to have officers go out and check worksites to see whether buildings were truly damaged or whether or not those sites really existed.

“We refused a number of work permits at that time,” he said.

The mass migrant situation also caused headaches several months after the storm, when temporary work permits for construction industry employees began to expire and no application had been made for permit renewals.

Since Immigration Law at the time stated that people couldn’t work between the expiration of a temporary permit and the grant of a full year permit, the situation left hundreds of people out of work. A situation which the Immigration Department and various immigration-related boards had to remedy.

“We had hundreds of those (temporary permit) applications a day,” Mr. Manderson said. “It shows the Immigration Department played a key role in the redevelopment of the country so quickly. If the department and staff were not able to respond…to get the people into the Islands, we would not be where we are today.”

In the years that followed, many workers in the construction and service industry stayed, finding new work to do. But Mr. Manderson said over the past couple of years that work has started to wind down.

“There is still a tremendous amount of construction going on, it’s just not at the magnitude we had after Ivan,” he said.

The Immigration Department has more recently had to battle with the issue of too many permits for too little work.

“We’ve had to be very careful that once things started to wind down that we had proper procedures in place to ensure those people who were not working were leaving,” Mr. Manderson said. “We’re still feeling the effects of that now.”

“For whatever reason, employers are not cancelling the work permits of workers if they no longer need them,” he said. “Is this because they had come to them at a time when they were in desperate situation? Maybe so.”