‘Phase 2’ of immigration plan ahead
Having completed a complex and wide-ranging overhaul to its permanent residency regime late last year, the Cayman Islands government is now looking at proposals that could fundamentally change the work permit system it has used for the past three decades.
The Ministry of Home Affairs, which has responsibility for immigration-related matters, has started a consultant’s review of the entire work permit process, employing the Deloitte accounting firm on a competitively bid $80,000 contract. The review is expected to be substantially complete by year’s end.
The so-called “Phase 2” of immigration reform is expected to focus on a number of areas, including the role appointed boards should have in the work permit approval process, whether the Immigration Department should continue to be the lead agency in approving work permits, and whether non-Caymanian civil servants should face residency term limits in the same way as private sector workers.
Ministry chief officer Eric Bush said this week that no final decisions had been made on any of the issues and that it would be up to Cabinet and ultimately the Legislative Assembly to decide what changes to make. If any of the proposals are adopted, he said, legislative amendments would be required, and that the process could take upwards of another year to complete.
One of the items the consultant’s review is considering is the level of involvement the Immigration Department and the National Workforce Development Agency, in the Department of Labour and Pensions, should have in the work permit approval process.
The issue was discussed recently by Employment Minister Tara Rivers and her ministerial councilor, George Town MLA Winston Connolly, at a press conference held with the workforce agency.
Both elected members indicated a willingness to accept legal changes that would make government’s labor-related agencies, such as the National Workforce Development Agency and the Department of Labour and Pensions, responsible for work permit vetting and approval.
“Immigration should be about border control, and the [workforce agency] should be the central body for employment,” Mr. Connolly said.
Minister Rivers indicated that making such a change would be complex and would require a significant overhaul in immigration and labor legislation. “But I think it is something that can be done,” she said.
Whatever government agency ends up handling work permit approvals, Mr. Bush said, it is likely that the National Workforce Development Agency would have a much greater role “at the front end” of the permit process.
How that might practically happen has been a sticking point so far in work permit reform. The general concern is that the 10-member staff at the workforce agency would go from handling 800 clients currently looking for work to vetting some 20,000 applications for work permits and government contracts. Also, immigration officers would still have to be involved in the process for border security reasons, even if the primary permit approval responsibility was placed elsewhere. Currently, work permit approvals are handled either by immigration officers or by politically appointed boards. Government contracts to non-Caymanian workers are approved in the civil service.
The role of boards
The work permit reform process also has a general goal, as stated by Premier Alden McLaughlin last year, of reducing the involvement of appointed boards in work permit approvals.
The Deloitte review seeks to advise government on creating a work permit approval system that is faster than the current process and which also includes less subjectivity in the decision-making.
Mr. McLaughlin has said he does not believe appointed boards can be entirely taken out of the work permit approval process and that, in any case, some mechanism will be needed for work permit appeals.
Consultants are also expected to consider whether all the details currently required on work permit applications are necessary for approval of a permit, for instance, requirements that permit-holders provide details on their personal living accommodations, including a landlord’s signature.
The “big-picture” idea is to eventually have as many work permit, permanent residence and other immigration-related applications as possible dealt with administratively. Now, immigration staff members approve or deny a significant number of work permits. The ruling Progressives government has said its goal is to have immigration handle all initial applications and leave only appeals of permit denials to entities like the Work Permit Board and Business Staffing Plan Board.
Whether those permit approvals are ultimately handled by the Immigration Department or the National Workforce Development Agency, the goal is the same.
Some serious discussion will be needed on this point, Mr. McLaughlin has acknowledged. “I’m told by those experts within the system that we’re probably going to need to retain a board to deal with more problematic matters [work permit applications where a qualified Caymanian applied and did not get the job, etc.].”
Civil service rollover
This proposal again has arisen some seven years after it was rejected following an internal review by the civil service and governor’s office that was never made public.
The idea is to subject non-Caymanian civil servants who do not hold permanent residence – of which there are more than 800 – to the same law that limits the time private sector workers without local connections can remain in the country. That term-limit on residency, often referred to as “the rollover policy,” was extended to nine years following amendments to the Immigration Law in 2013.
Non-Caymanian civil servants’ employment contracts are governed under the Public Service Management Law, but it has been anticipated that any changes made that affect non-Caymanian civil servants’ residency period would have to be included in the Immigration Law.
The difficulty now facing the government in enacting such a policy for civil servants is largely the same as the issues it encountered in 2007. Certain government departments that employ more foreign workers would be harder hit by a term-limit policy than others, particularly the Royal Cayman Islands Police Service and the Department of Education, both of which employ a large number of non-Caymanians. According to the Department of Education, 54 percent of all teachers in the public school system are non-Caymanian. In the RCIPS, about 58 percent of all police officers are non-Caymanian.
In the 2007 proposal, the police service would have been exempt from the term-limit policy, according to then-Deputy Head of the Civil Service Peter Gough.
Also at issue in 2007 was whether various statutory authorities and government-owned companies should continue to be “protected” from the term-limit policy. Many entities, including Cayman Airways and Water Authority-Cayman, are already required to get work permits for expatriate employees. However, others, including the Health Services Authority, were not required to do so. The Health Services Authority staff is about 50 percent non-Caymanian at present.