Vision for the new Department of Labour

Mario Ebanks is a well known figure on the employment relations scene in the Cayman Islands. He has held senior positions in government and the private sector for several years and was recently hired to take on his most challenging role to date, that of director of Labour and Pensions and Acting Superintendent of Pensions.

Mario agreed to respond to some candid questions and to discuss his new role and his vision for the newly restructured department with the Chamber.

Chamber: In a press release announcing your appointment as the director of Labour and Pensions last year, Minister Rolston Anglin said the Ministry had been working diligently on remedies for the long standing “failures and inefficiencies” of the current structure and services for labour-related functions.

Based on studies it was determined that a restructuring of the Department of Employment Relations and the National Pensions Office was the best way to achieve a more effective and efficient one-stop shop for all labour-related services. Can you describe what changes have been implemented since your appointment and if these changes have resulted in any improvements in employer/employee relations?

Mario: The new mission of the Department of Labour and Pensions is to provide, through education, engagement and the enforcement of labour and pension legislation, a one-stop shop for private sector labour and pensions services and support, delivered by competent and caring staff, operating in a prompt, fair and impartial manner and with the highest integrity.

I believe that the mission statement sets the tone for the type of organisation which the Ministry wants for the public, and which the team and I in the department are happy to deliver.

I am well aware, as a citizen and a former businessman and activist in the private sector that the image of the old Department of Employment Relations and perhaps the National Pensions Office may not have been positive; we are committed to changing that, in the fullness of time.

In addition to the new mission statement, the Ministry has approved a new organisational chart for the department; one which is more dynamic, accountable and user-friendly. In practice we are implementing the organisational structure through on-the-job learning and mentoring, as well as ensuring that the officers in the department are given the tools and discretion that they need in order to serve the public and resolve problems while ensuring that all rights are maintained.

Through the Ministry, performance agreements have been signed recently between the director and all departmental staff, and this provides a shared commitment to address any skills or development needs that have been identified. I have a dream that very soon we will complete dealing with the various legacy issues and “fire-fighting” and be enabled to commence the department’s strategic plan, involving various stakeholders.

Chamber: What do you hope to achieve with these reforms and what advice would you give to both employers and employees when interacting with the new department?

Mario: It is a reasonable and normal expectation that the DLP in the Cayman Islands should be friendly to business and thereby facilitate sustainable economic growth. At the same time, the department must also adamantly protect the rights of employees, and as a partnership we will develop and promote a workplace that is safe, productive and tranquil.

Employers or employees interacting with the new DLP should see a change in our attitudes, quality of service, and responsiveness. This is due, in part, to the values which have been developed and approved for the DLP, as follows:

  • Professional, pro-active and ethical
  • Fair, consistent and impartial in our decision-making
  • Research and fact-driven
  • Resourced with well-trained, dedicated, honest, and attentive staff
  • Client-focused, communicates well and delivers timely and thorough services.

If any stakeholder, be it a Chamber member or otherwise, do not see these values being demonstrated, I trust that they will let me know so that we can address and mentor those involved.

Chamber: The Chamber Council submitted a detailed review on the proposed changes to the National Pensions Bill last year. It remains unclear as to whether the Chamber’s views on the bill would be taken into consideration. Is your department now charged with recommending changes to the National Pensions Law and Regulations?

Mario: Yes. As a matter of fact, at the time of writing (late December 2012) the DLP and the Ministry is involved in completing a comprehensive review of a large volume of feedback from the public on the National Pensions Bill 2012.

In addition to the Chamber’s comprehensive 47-page representation, there has also been written comments from the Cayman Islands Monetary Authority, a number of administrators and other interest groups, and tremendous feedback from a public/online survey, to list the main sources. All representation will be considered and examined and a revised and/or amended bill will be forthcoming, subject to drafting resources and Cabinet consideration.

Chamber: What actions will be taken by your department to investigate employers that fail to pay the required pensions for their staff?

Mario: At the present time, the DLP, with full support from the Ministry, the National Pensions Board, and the Office of Complaints commissioner, is involved in a number of special projects, using in-house and temporary staff assistance.

These projects involve the resolution of a high volume of unresolved pensions complaints, as well as the rationalisation and pursuit of employer delinquency reports; the results of these investigative projects could result in a menu of options to be pursued by the officers in the NPO.

At the same time, the DLP continues its efforts toward public engagement/awareness. New strategies will involve a more agile and immediate system of sanctions, particularly the new administrative (fixed penalty regime) fines.

However, to augment this, the department’s officers in the NPO will work with employers to regain compliance where reasonable and prudent, resorting to prosecution as and when necessary.

Chamber: Looking ahead in three years time, how would you like to see the department functioning and what impact do you see this having on employer/employee relations in the Cayman Islands?

Mario: In three years from now, or less, I hope that we can see the fruition of the Workplace Excellence Initiative, which is to be as part of the department’s strategic plan. The initiative will involve all stakeholders in a partnership and empowering each of them (employers, employees, professional and trade associations, counterpart regulators, media, social media and website presence and one-on-one stakeholders’ engagement).

Key performance results of a successful initiative should achieve a significant reduction in: complaints/disputes, occupational safety and health breaches or accidents, hearings or enforcement orders, or tactical response inspections or prosecutions.

As a service economy, where the clients of both major sectors, financial services and tourism, are very discerning, it is critical for employers to adopt best practices in the motivation and retention of talent, and it is also critical that the employee recognises the importance of their role and take full ownership for the delivery of reliable and high-quality service through outstanding performance, conduct and work ethic.

Chamber: What action is the department taking to encourage best practices in employers and employee relations?

Mario: When I joined the department in April 2012 (after working part-time to transition for a couple of months) I realised that there was a tremendous amount of work to be done with the realignment new DLP, which is an amalgamation of part of the previous DER with the NPO.

Two of the many areas included ensuring that the staff in the department have a genuine understanding of their purpose and from there educate them on the new vision, mission and values of the organisation and, in particular, to solicit their partnership and cooperation. The other area for urgent attention was the streamlining of processes and the formulation of standard operating procedures; this project is a work in progress.

However, as companion measures the Department has been active on many fronts and will continue to build on these areas in 2013. This includes the free distribution and ease of access of the Labour Law and the National Pensions Law, as many employers seemingly did not have copies of this important legislation.

We have also developed and/or streamlined a number of courses, ranging from Labour Law Fundamentals, to Occupational Health and Safety for the hospitality industry (Hotels).

The Department introduced a new monthly talk show styled “Workplace Excellence Clinic” on Radio Cayman Talk Today, which features information and question and answer opportunities for the general public, on both the Labour and Pensions Laws and Regulations. In 2013 the Department also intends, subject to funding, to enhance and re-launch its website

Chamber: What can the business community expect to see in 2013 in the areas of labour and pensions reform?

Mario: The Department is looking forward to continuing to support the minister and the Ministry of Employment in developing and promulgating proposals for comprehensive and much-needed amendments to the Labour Law and the National Pensions Law, and to continue to engage the public in consultation and joint problem-solving.

It is also our objective to ensure that the Department of Labour and Pensions is much more responsive and professional, which will clear the backlog of long-standing legacy issues and prevent the reoccurrence of same.

In our Strategic Plan I am also proposing that the Department works with the Ministry and stakeholders such as the C.I. Society for HR Professionals and the Chamber’s Professional Development Centre to equip HR professionals and practitioners with certification/accreditation at various levels depending on their industry or needs.

This type of competency development will serve a preventive maintenance as there will be a much more robust and front-lines knowledge base and practical applications of world class workplace excellence methodologies and systems, which will benefit the employer, employee, customer, shareholders, and the economy of these Islands in general. As the adage goes, an ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure.

Chamber: Employee safety on the job is important to maintaining a safe and productive work environment. Will your department be taking any additional measures in 2013 to assist employers with developing best practices in this area? 

Mario: This is a critical area and one which we intend to inspire the various operators (whether it be developers, landlords, contractors, sub-contractors, supervisors, or workers) that they have a direct interest in safe operations at work, as it could mean the difference between them going home safely to the families after work, or lying in a hospital bed or worse (including even in a morgue – God forbid).

If we can motivate all stakeholders to embrace a culture of compliance, for example if a general contractor holds his sub-contractors to the same high standards to which he is held by the developer, then we will have a safer workplace, and there will not be the need for aggressive Inspections, Remedial Notices, accident Investigations or Prosecutions. So, everyone’s a winner by adopting a shared commitment to a culture of sensible compliance and best practices.

In 2013 the department will work with the Office of the Complaints Commissioner, the Employment Ministry and other stakeholders to address numerous legacy issues. We will also embark on new strategies, including training and certification of workers in occupational safety and health principles relevant to various workplace environments. With the new Inspections Unit, the Department will ensure that there is increased awareness of the laws and expectations, augmented by proactive inspections and audits.

Chamber: It appears that the new approach to labour relations will involve increased inspections and enforcement. Will your department be carrying out increased inspections to prosecute unscrupulous employers who break the law repeatedly?

Mario: Yes. The department’s approach under my leadership has been to embrace employers and their associations, as well as employees, in education and awareness, training, and dialogue, while also conducting audits and inspections as resources allow.

While this has generated much goodwill and positive results, in 2013, subject to resources, the department will also intensify efforts in carrying out proactive and surprise workplace Inspections, and will deal with any infractions of the Labour Law or the National Pensions Law in accordance with the powers available within those Laws.

In carrying out its compliance mandate, the department will also leverage technology, as well as capitalise on various synergies and relationship capital. It is not right, nor is it fair to other businesses in the economy, when some operators operate with total disregard for our laws, while other good corporate citizens abide by best practices and acceptable standards, but are competitively disadvantaged. In accordance with the values of the Department, all officers will consistently carry out this mandate.