Panelists at the Cayman Economic Outlook conference Tuesday agreed that there is an “underclass” developing in the territory and that more needs to be done to address the growing divide between the haves and the have-nots.
During a discussion on the topic of “Think: Inequality in the Cayman Context,” moderator Jeremy Hurst asked panelists whether growing concerns as of late about an emerging underclass in the Cayman Islands were valid and how Cayman might be affected by a disparity in income and opportunities.
The question was complicated as panelists recognized at least two distinct groups who might be referred to as an “underclass” in the Cayman Islands – unemployed Caymanians and foreign low-wage workers.
“I think it’s a little bit complicated because we are a very unique country where more than half of our labor force is brought in from the outside,” panelist Paul Byles said.
Mr. Byles, CEO of First Regents Bank, said those imported workers need to have access to basic services, including healthcare and transportation, that help to ensure a decent living standard.
He said the situation is complicated because many low-wage workers are willing to work for less here, because their wages are still more than they would be making back home. He said many low-skilled employees “collude” with employers to present a picture to immigration authorities that they’re receiving a decent, livable wage, and being treated fairly, when the reality is otherwise. He said dealing with the emerging underclass of foreign workers was just as pressing as dealing with the issue of unemployed Caymanians.
MLA and employment minister Tara Rivers said there is an underclass that includes some foreign workers, but also includes all members of the community who live below a certain “minimum acceptable standard” for living.
She said “establishing what that minimum standard should be has been a bit of a political football for quite a few decades,” but that through the work of the Minimum Wage Advisory Committee, “we now have for the first time” a comprehensive look at what it means to be living below the poverty line in Cayman.
Establishing a minimum wage, which will go into effect March 1, is part of a “viable solution” to increase individuals’ ability to live more comfortably, Ms. Rivers said.
Other solutions, she said, include future private-public partnerships to help ensure that more Caymanians are provided with opportunities to participate in the financial services industry.
Conference attendee Eamon McErlean asked panelists why more could not be done to help what he sees as “the real unfortunates” in the Cayman Islands: Caymanians who are “unemployed and unemployable.” In a letter to the Compass, Mr. McErlean describes these individuals as those are cannot or will not get employment due to a variety of issues, including poor education, a limited skill set, low motivation, or criminal records.
“They receive little or nothing from the government,” he said, adding that “leaders seem to think they can pass ownership of this problem to the island’s private sector, blaming it year after year for not employing all of them.”
“I would offer that we can do better,” Mr. McErlean said. “We are rightly congratulating ourselves on the islands’ achievements in reducing its debts year on year, yet allow this relatively small set of people to suffer unnecessarily.”
Help to those “real unfortunates” may be on the way. During Premier Alden McLaughlin’s state of the nation address earlier in the day, he said the next budget will fund plans designed to improve the public education system. The budget will also allow for additional funding to be provided to the Needs Assessment Unit and the Department of Children and Family Services, as well as a new conditional release program to help rehabilitate prisoners.
Panelist Dambisa Moyo, who was named one of Time magazine’s “100 Most Influential People in the World,” said it is important that “we all” rally to find some sort of solution to income inequality, because the issue affects all people and all aspects of life in a community.
“It’s impossible to think we can live a secure, happy, healthy … life in certain communities when our neighbors are trying to eke out a basic living,” Ms. Moyo said.
“There is absolutely no way that we can go to the supermarket, watch a movie, have the life that we would like to live when our neighbors are living in a situation where they might resort to crime just to survive,” she added.
Ms. Moyo said that while it is the case that market capitalism is a system that creates winners or losers, the “question is less about winners and losers and more about minimum living standards.”
“If everybody could live a certain decent living standard, [with] access to great healthcare, access to good education infrastructure, etc., then maybe we would be less concerned about somebody being a billionaire and somebody not being a billionaire,” Ms. Moyo said. “If everybody lived at a certain standard, we would be less concerned. The problem is that somebody is making so much more money, somebody else is not living at a human level.”