Work permits down 12.4 per cent

A fading local economy combined with a big reduction in pending applications for permanent residence in the Cayman Islands has led to a one-year, 12 per cent-plus drop in foreign workers.

According to data obtained by the Caymanian Compass under the Freedom of Information Law (2007), there were 23,356 people here on work permits – including government contracts – in mid-November this year. A year ago that number was 26,659.

Although the drop in the number of foreign workers was sharp, it did not occur across all categories.

For the most part, the number of work permit renewals stayed the same. The permit drop happened mainly in the initial grant of full-year work permits and in applications for six-month temporary work permits.

First time work permit grants fell more than eight per cent when comparing November 2009 with November 2008. The number of temporary work permits (generally six-month contracts) fell by a whopping 32 per cent.

The latter statistic would tend to show that local businesses are simply hiring fewer people during the economic slow down.

Foreign workers are often brought in on six month temporary permits simply because the application process is quicker and easier. Many of those workers then graduate to a full-year permit after their first temporary work permit expires.

Also, there was a huge drop from year to year for those living in the Cayman Islands as an operation of the law. That status is given to those individuals who are awaiting a decision on their permanent residence applications or who are appealing refusals of work permits.

The number of people working in Cayman as an operation of law fell more than 36 per cent in the past year. That drop was expected, as a rash of permanent residence applications from 2006 and 2007 was dealt with following the implementation of Cayman’s seven-year term limits – known as the rollover policy – on residence for foreign workers. There are still more than 2,000 people working in Cayman as an operation of law.

Another major factor in the permit decrease was a sharp drop in the number of people working here on government contracts. These are either foreign workers in the civil service or Caymanians over age 60 who are required have fixed-term contracts to continue working. There has been a 10 per cent drop in government contract workers between November 2008 and November 2009.

Government workers accounted for one of the largest drops in employment for work permit holders in the Cayman Islands over the past year.

The construction industry also took a big hit in work permits across the board since January. The number of carpenters here on permits fell from 923 to 773 in that time; heavy equipment operator permits went from 248 to 199; masons dropped from 629 to 545; and skilled and unskilled labourer permits went from 1,536 to 1,185.

The tourism and hospitality industry also saw big drops in permits for several job categories. Non-professional managers in the tourism industry decreased permit numbers from 65 in January to 49 in November; work permits for bartenders fell from 107 to 90 in that same time; dive instructors dropped from 253 permits in January to 202 in November; food and beverage servers, waiters and waitresses’ permits dropped from 1,274 to 1,155; and boat deck hands went from 99 permits to 74 permits.

News was mixed in the professional categories, some of which actually saw a slight increase in work permits in the latter half of this year. However, most professional work permit categories did drop between January and November.

Accountants saw one of the largest decreases, going from 711 permits to 595 permits. Permits for professional managers also saw a sizeable drop in permits; 787 were held in January to 695 held in November.

Not all permit categories decreased this year. The number of nurses stayed about the same, while work permits issued for hairdressers and for artists went up by about 15 a piece.

The work permit numbers provided by the Immigration Department are essentially a ‘snapshot’ of the number of work permits and contracts active in the Cayman Islands during any given day. Fluctuations in business staffing, economic, or personnel issues cause those numbers to change on a weekly, if not a daily basis.

However, Cayman has recorded a fairly steady overall drop in the number of work permits since the fourth quarter of 2008, after several years of steady growth.