It could probably be called the number one hot button issue of the moment in Cayman: How to fix the country’s struggling economy.
Local accountant Theo Bullmore offered this suggestion at the recent Cayman Business Outlook panel forum: “The first thing we’ve got to do is get the population up to where it was. There are two ways of doing that; Caymanians could procreate more…[or] the alternative is to get more expats on Island.”
Bullmore advocated making some positive moves to welcome expatriate workers and foreign investment back to the Cayman Islands.
“Caymanians should, and this is only metaphorically, hug an expat a day,” he said.
Panel moderator and radio talk show host Austin Harris couldn’t pass that last comment up.
“At Cayman Crosstalk, we’re about to come out with some T-shirts and I think you’ve given me an idea for one of them: ‘Have you hugged an expat today?’” Harris joked, to more laughter from the hundreds gathered at the Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman.
But seriously folks…
The panel of local business and education leaders largely agreed during a Thursday, 20 January debate that the only way to fix Cayman’s economy in the short to medium term is to bring more people to the Islands.
“The misconception we as Caymanians had for a very long time is that it’s a zero-sum game,” said Canover Watson, one of the six panellists involved in the debate. “If we got rid of an expat; that would lead to a job for a Caymanian. That has been a fundamental flaw in our policies and the applications of them.”
“It’s not how we get rid of expats, but how do we create jobs?”
The panel debate, bearing the lengthy title: ‘Things tough! So don’t cut my pay, tax me less and give me more free services…and so something about crime…education…and jobs. And what about those expats?’ went on for more than hour and included contributions from Watson, attorney Sherri Bodden-Cowan, UCCI President Roy Bodden, architect Burns Conolly, Bullmore, and financial consultant Tom McCallum.
During the discussion, Harris posed several questions to the panellists that are often the topic of debate on his programme. The debate group appeared as final part of the Cayman Business Outlook forum Thursday at the Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman.
“As Caymanians, we appear to be hostile to increasing foreign control of the economy in our country. How can we have our cake and eat it too?” he asked.
Connolly answered that the question was based on a “very interesting premise”.
“We keep talking about our economy being tourism and finance,” he said. “We have to…until we diversify, which may or may not be possible, we have to fuel development and consumption. It’s critical that we continue to actively bring in foreign investment.”
The architect and former political candidate said that the country had generally not done a good job of explaining to the local population how its economy works.
“We are telling out local Caymanians that they are really not getting their fair share and the evil people are the people who are coming off the aircraft,” he said. “I think that has to change.”
Bodden-Cowan said it was partly her job as Work Permit Board chair and as head of the government’s Immigration Review Team to let outside investors know that Cayman is “open for business”.
“In the short term we do need to continue to grow the population by bringing in more people from overseas,” she said. As those individuals become more established, Bodden-Cowan said government could then look at integrating those considered good candidates for permanent residency into society – essentially the purpose of the country’s current Immigration Law.
Harris also asked the panel whether they believed there was ‘hysteria and panic’ over the current economic situation and if any of them believed the country should return to “simpler times”.
“Absolutely not!” said Bodden, the UCCI president. “I would be a madman if I advocated that. We are on a treadmill from which there is no way off.”
“We have to improve the level of service that we offer and improve our knowledge,” Bodden said, adding that he felt education was the largest single issue facing the Cayman Islands today.
But effective education will only work in the longer term, and the aspect of ten per cent of the Islands’ population leaving over the past two years had put Cayman in some serious economic straits, Bullmore opined.
“You can look at Friday’s [Caymanian] Compass and see how many apartments are for rent,” Mr. Bullmore said.
Mr. Watson pointed out that there was no point on bringing people to the Islands if there were no jobs for them to do.
He gave an example of his company that started as a five-person operation, with himself as the only Caymanian worker. It has morphed into a 100-person staff with 50 Caymanians employed, he said.
“We were able to build a bigger pie because we were able to grow,” Mr. Watson said. “That is the only way we can protect Caymanian jobs for today and for the long term.”
Government population estimates had Cayman’s resident numbers dropping from around 57,000 in 2008 to less than 53,000 in 2009. Estimates for 2010 were not available by press time.
Immigration Department work permit numbers have shown a steady decline since late 2008, but records reviewed late last year revealed a large drop in work permit renewal numbers.
More than 2,100 people employed here on work permits have left the Islands from mid-March through September.
According to Immigration records obtained under a Freedom of Information request, the number of new work permit grants in Cayman fell by 1,036 grants between mid-March and mid-September. New permit grants represent the total number of new full-year work permits given to foreign nationals that are active at the time the count is taken.
Work permits and government contracts issued by the Cayman Islands government have fallen by more than 5,500 in less than two years.