Cayman’s ‘underclass’

I was an attendee last week at the excellent Cayman Economic Outlook conference, the theme of which was “inequality.” While not typically one to raise questions at such events, I posed a question which has irked me for some time and to which I did not receive a satisfactory response …

The term “underclass” had been mentioned on a number of occasions during the event in the context of unskilled expat labor as though these people are the most unfortunate of those living among us.

I would contend that although these people do indeed survive on extremely modest incomes far below anyone’s poverty line, they are not the real unfortunates here. These people typically come to the island knowing what they will receive by way of income; they live very carefully and so still manage to send money home to their families. For them the new minimum wage will present a welcome pay raise allowing a little more money to be sent home each month.

Rather, the real underclass in the Cayman Islands is those in the group I would term “unemployed and unemployable.” This is a group of Caymanian citizens that due to a variety of issues (typically poor education, limited skill set, low motivation and/or past prison record) cannot or will not get employment in either the private or public sectors.

We all see these people walking the streets or riding their bicycles aimlessly in the midday sun with their heads down and defeated expressions on their faces. They receive little or nothing from the government so typically live with their parent(s) and seek handouts from whatever family can help out. It is young (typically) males of this set that will turn to crime and drugs as their only option to get some cash and find a release from the hopelessness of their plight.

My question was, “Why can we not do more for these people when we can clearly afford to help them?”

Our leaders seem to think that they can pass ownership of this problem to the islands’ private sector, blaming it year after year for not employing all of them. I would offer that we can do better. 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.

While I am no socialist, I contend that those who are clearly unable to work should be afforded a basic living wage sufficient to cover a modest rent and decent quality of life. Those who are able to work yet remain unemployed should be provided with work by the government at the new minimum wage ($6 per hour) on a long-term basis. This work can be of any sort deemed to be productive such as cleaning our streets, beaches and public areas in the manner carried on prior to Christmas. While a training element could be married to this scheme for certain people, all should be eligible for the money if they are prepared to turn up for work and perform as instructed within their abilities.

As a side benefit to such a policy, almost all of the money paid out would be used to make purchases from local businesses (such people will not be engaging in overseas shopping trips), so our businesses will benefit and the islands will immediately get a portion of the money back in additional duties from the on-island items purchased. Furthermore, when a person who has been long-term unemployed can demonstrate a habit of consistently turning up for work, he or she will be much more likely to be looked upon favorably when applying for a job than if no work record was available.

Eamon McErlean