Work permits and PR: Unshackling Cayman's economic progress

Over the past year, the number of work permit holders in the Cayman Islands rose 9 percent — from 20,360 to 22,232 people. This includes a 12 percent increase in workers from Jamaica, who now number about 9,100.

Make no mistake — that is very good news for Cayman’s economy.

Last Friday, the Compass ran a front-page story on the government’s annual economic report from the Economics and Statistics Office, which contained a dizzying array of figures for the year 2014, including on Cayman’s gross domestic product (up 2.1 percent), overall unemployment (at 4.7 percent), Caymanian unemployment (at 7.9 percent), total visitors (up 16 percent), air arrivals (up 11 percent) and cruise arrivals (up 17 percent).

At the same time, the government released another report showing that Cayman’s consumer price index, which is used to measure inflation, declined by 0.4 percent in the first quarter of 2015. Finance Minister Marco Archer attributed this deflation to falling oil prices, which are far beyond Cayman’s control.

Trotted out all at once, those assorted facts and fluctuations are enough to combust calculators and crumble crania.

Broadly speaking, in order to assess accurately the state of Cayman’s economy, we need not trouble ourselves with more than a handful of key statistics:

  • The number of work permits
  • The total population
  • The amount of imports (except for oil and gasoline)

If those indicators are trending upward, which indeed they all were during 2014, then Cayman’s economy can be said to be growing.

Of the three bullet points we list above, the one likely to attract the most disagreement is the first. We can hear the indignant rejoinder now, “Immigrants steal jobs from locals.” That, of course, is a myth.

We maintain, and evidence-based analysis supports, the argument that the more people working in Cayman, regardless of immigration status, the better for the overall economy — and the better the overall economy is, the more job opportunities there are for everyone, including Caymanians and non-Caymanians.

When functioning properly, it’s a cycle of positive feedback.

Drawing on other recent headline news, our hypothetical opponents might point to the nearly US$180 million in remittances sent last year from Cayman to other countries (much of that, presumably, from foreign workers in Cayman to their dependents overseas). Isn’t that a clear indication of work permit holders shrinking, rather than expanding, the local economy?

In Thursday’s editorial, we said it is readily apparent that, considering their contributions in terms of government fees and local expenses, expatriate workers have a net positive effect on Cayman’s economy. We shall set aside that truth for now — and accept the narrower observation that outbound remittances, taken by themselves, do constitute a negative line-item on the economy’s balance sheet.

There is a way to stem this capital flight from Cayman, and to un-tether the status of Cayman’s economy from the quantity of work permits: Rather than continuing to treat expatriates as “rented” labor for a specified rollover period, we should transform our immigration regime so that work permit holders are regarded fundamentally as candidates for permanent residence, and potentially full-blown Caymanian status.

In other words, provide expatriates with a clear and level pathway to citizenship, so to speak. (Notice that we do not use terms such as “loose,” “easy,” or “non-selective.” Like academic testing, our immigration criteria should be rigorous and standards-based, but fair and transparent.)

This evolution in immigration ethos would encourage expatriates to keep and invest their money in Cayman. And, as foreign workers — after proving themselves as fit additions to our society — transition to PR status, it would reduce our country’s reliance on work permits and make that particular number increasingly irrelevant to the condition of Cayman’s economy.


  1. Another way to look at the foolishness of the "expats stealing jobs" myth is to consider the workforce;-

    Take the 18,000 registered voters, a convenient measure as it excludes those below 18…

    Take a further 3 – 4,000 from that 18 for those who are retired,

    Take the 3,000 employed by government…

    Gives approx 11,000 private sector jobs and 22,000 work permits. In that context it becomes very obvious that there are nowhere near enough Caymanians to fill the jobs…

    So rather than wasting government resources creating more and more hoops for the private sector to jump through, the focus must be on training both the unemployed and the underemployed.

    Make no mistake, the private sector suffers a significant parasitic drain as the result of ill thought out, heavy handed bureaucratic legislation. Would the 2.1 percent growth have been nearer 2.5 without it?

    A government should be about creating the fertile soil on which Jobs and The Economy grow of their own accord – attemting to directly create jobs is not something ANY government has ever been successful at!

    On the other hand good training programs ALWAYS succeed.

    There will be the new Kimpton opening in a couple of years – They will need people to run and maintain it;- Electricians, Plumbers, A/C engineers, Chefs and Managers etc.
    WHERE ARE ALL THE APPRENTICESHIP PROGRAMS to have the people ready when those jobs are advertised?

    The focus on forcing companies to employ a Caymanian whose skill set is a poor fit for the job is inherently flawed as the maths above shows, But give the company an opportunity to hire a "good fit" employee and both the company and Caymanian thrive.

    Sadly too many senior politicians have been bleating the xenophobic "expat baaad – steal job" mantra so long that it has become an ingrained prejudice which prevents innovative solutions.

  2. I very much doubt that the recommendation in Friday’s Compass editorial will ever be taken seriously.
    To suggest that work permit holders be given Permanent Residency on a sizable scale is not at all realistic by any stretch of the imagination.
    While we presently have a large number of foreign workers,it does not necessarily follow that it is in the best interests of the Caymanian people for them to be considered for PR, and in particular Caymanian Status.

  3. For those struggling to understand why so much money leaves Cayman, it’s quite simple. All ex-pats have most of their debts outside the country. Homes, extended families, credit card bills, etc… Most ex-pats are servicing debt in their home countries and must meet that obligation monthly. I would imagine that most would love to purchase a small home here and make a life, but the cost to do so is prohibitive and what’s the point if you are forced to leave and made to feel like, well…" driftwood " by key members of government.

  4. There are more important issue to waste time on do we need to talk about this every week my god man….. All i can hear every mouth is the poor expat well i was not poor when i came here from the states in 1984 and i am sick and tired of hearing how bad it is when we as world travelers know this is a lie and a deception. The truth be told we expats are doing very good here i am and so are the one i meet up with at the bars and restaurants every week some time three or four times a week, poor us don’t got anything else to do but wine and dine and unfairly criticize to death the thing that allows our wining and dining. We need to try to give more thanks. Can any one help me lose 15 pounds i am over wieght from all this hard life here in the Cayman islands…… This is my reality ya dig……….