Cayman Islands Cabinet members have said that only Caymanians should be allowed to operate tour buses under the local law that governs public passenger vehicles.
However, private sector representatives said what government is trying to do will reach far beyond tour buses and extend to nearly every sector of the public transportation industry.
“[Prior to now] ‘operator’ was defined as being the owner [of the public transit vehicle] … and then those individuals had other nationalities driving the tour buses,” said Tourism Minister Cline Glidden Jr.
According to tour industry officials, regulations within the country’s Traffic Law have defined “operator” as a Caymanian of at least 21 years of age. Earlier this year government officials looked at the issue and determined that “operator” meant anyone being in control of the bus, which had what Mr. Glidden said was the “unintended consequence” that only Caymanians could drive the tour buses.
As it turns out, that was what was intended after all.
“There was a request as to whether the government would change that,” Mr. Glidden said. ”After consideration the government, especially due to the unemployment situation, took a decision not to change that provision in the law, but to discuss with the operators their challenges and to see if we could find a way … to incentivise the operators to actually hire many of the Caymanians who are qualified.”
Mr. Glidden said tour owners and operators were willing to do that, but found what they considered to be certain barriers to entry for Caymanian drivers in the tour bus business.
The minister may have understated the issues a bit, according to representatives of the local tour industry.
“This is absolutely huge,” said Nigel Mitten, owner of Majestic Tours in Grand Cayman and also the Cayman Islands Tourism Association board member representing the transportation sector. “It really restricts who we can hire as it also excludes us from hiring not only a person on a work permit but also persons married to Caymanians and persons with permanent residence. Up until two weeks ago [the government’s National Workforce Development Agency] has been sending transportation operators letters saying ‘sorry, there’s no one registered with us’.
“What are we to do, shut down our business?”
Mr. Mitten said the main issue regarding hiring anyone to work in the tours industry, or public transit in general, was the lengthy time it takes to process applications – including requirements that all applicants; whether they drive tour buses, limos, taxis, omni buses or school buses, take a general knowledge test.
“From the reports that were given to me by the operators, apparently there was some 95 per cent failure rate on the test,” Mr. Glidden said, referring to it as a ‘tourism test’. “Obviously, any test that is failing that number would indicate there is a problem.”
“I’ve never had any person pass that test the first time,” Mr. Mitten said.
About 18 months ago, Mr. Mitten said there was discussion of a 30-day or 60-day time frame for tour bus owners to test-drive their drivers, during which time they might receive on-the-job training that would enable them to pass general knowledge tests and determine if they liked working in public transit.
Minister Glidden said he agreed with “an interim or a grace period which would allow the operators to be able to use the drivers for a period of time … that would allow them to get accustomed to and determine whether they were suitable for their operation”.
On Thursday, at a Cabinet press briefing, Mr. Glidden said that grace period could be extended to 90 days depending on Public Transportation Board approval.
Mr. Mitten said this was an issue, not only for tour bus drivers, but for all public transit vehicles which operate under the same law in the Cayman Islands.
He said there needs to be more discussion between government and industry officials before anything like “Caymanian only” rules for tour bus drivers goes forward.
“There is so much talk of protecting the small Caymanian-owned businesses at a time when the economy is hurting, but we cannot see how what is happening is going to help anyone,” Mr. Mitten said. “This is not just our transportation industry problem. The fact is that when the transportation network of a society is crippled, then all of society suffers and so soon it will be the problem of all residents of the island. As recently as just a few weeks ago companies have received letters from the National Workforce Development Agency stating that there are no Caymanians registered as drivers. So what happens now?”