Abusing the most vulnerable among us

The most illuminating reading of the Cayman Islands government’s report on the minimum wage has little to do with wages and everything to do with decency.

We applaud Premier Alden McLaughlin and his government for its transparency in making this document public. We especially want to recognize committee chairman Lemuel Hurlston who is re-emerging as one of Cayman’s most highly regarded and principled leaders. After serving 26 years in public service, Mr. Hurlston retired from government in 1995, having held numerous leadership positions, including Chief Secretary/Deputy Governor.

Oftentimes, what makes a journey worthwhile isn’t the destination, but what is encountered along the way. From this perspective, the Cayman Islands government’s recent report on a national minimum wage is proving to be an enlightening expedition.

The Minimum Wage Advisory Committee’s 10-month-long odyssey to get from $5 an hour (North Side MLA Ezzard Miller’s initial proposal) to $6 an hour (the committee’s recommendation) meanders throughout Cayman’s geographical districts, social strata and immediate economic history.

In the course of arriving at a deceptively simple public policy proposal, the committee delves into some of the darkest recesses of our country, pulling back the curtain on attitudes, behaviors and practices that, in hindsight, many may prefer to have been left undisturbed or, at least, unremarked.

The real substance of the committee’s report is related only tangentially to the topic of the minimum wage. The report’s greater value consists in its depiction of a minority of miscreants in Cayman society, who – emboldened by “cultural norms” and enabled by a complicit system – regularly mistreat, abuse and exploit their most vulnerable fellow human beings … people whom they, ironically enough, have invited to occupy positions that often necessitate a great amount of trust.

The injustices the committee documents have not been perpetrated by cold, profit-calculating companies, but by individual Cayman households (our country’s “moms” and “pops”) who employ Jamaican and Filipino domestic workers.

The stories related by those household workers to the committee are ones not typically found within the pages of this newspaper, or in any local media, not because we aren’t told about them, but because we are rarely told about them “on the record.” The storytellers are scared, and perhaps rightly so.

Consider the following extracts from the report, on the topic of Jamaican and Filipino household workers:
“No one in attendance ever got paid overtime (despite some reports of working 12-hour days and on the weekends.”)
“Employers will often deduct the health insurance fees from the employee’s salary but they will not make the payments to the insurance company.”
“The figures that are listed on the work permit application are normally not the amount paid to the employee; one Consul estimated that 90 percent of the persons encountered cited this issue.”
“The employees feel that they have nowhere to turn to report the violation and in some instances fear having to go to the authorities to report the violation against their employer because of their desire to make an income. Therefore, they say nothing and the exploitive practices continue.”
“[A] Caymanian male employer contracted her as a live-in helper; he was verbally abusive to the employee and when the young woman did not comply with her employer’s sexual advances, he didn’t pay her and left her destitute at the airport. When this incident was reported to the Immigration Department, they were advised that the employer had been the subject of similar complaints from previous employees.”

The gross ill-treatment of Cayman’s “helpers,” nannies and housekeepers is a stain on our country’s conscience that cannot, and must not, be ignored or tolerated.

In the words of Lady Macbeth, “Hell is murky.”

The only solution for darkness is sunshine.