While customer service and friendliness at the Cayman Islands Immigration Department has improved in recent months, complex regulations and administrative practices that serve to stymie local businesses have not, according to a recent survey by the Chamber of Commerce.

The Chamber conducted interviews during mid-June with 23 employers in the islands who are responsible for the jobs of about 2,500 workers, to determine how the Immigration Department was performing in handling work-related requests for companies that employ non-Caymanians. All responses were kept anonymous.

“The [work permit] categories were a dominant source of challenge for [the businesses that participated],” the Chamber review stated.

This is a problem the government itself has flagged, noting earlier this year that a work permit processing system at the Cayman Islands Immigration Department that includes about 5,000 different job categories must be clarified.

Civil service managers said in March that even Immigration Department employees are baffled by seemingly simple issues of how a job should be categorized and what a business must pay for the work permit if they hire a non-Caymanian to do it.

The business owners surveyed also noted that work permit fees charged for jobs within specific industries can vary widely, and companies are never quite sure what they might have to pay.

For instance, in the legal profession, the annual permit cost for a bookkeeper is $4,600, but the same permit cost for a clerk, bookkeeping/accounts is $1,050. In the publishing industry, a graphic designer’s annual permit costs $6,000, while a graphic artist’s permit costs $4,743.75.

In the hairdressing, beauty treatment and personal service activities industry, a non-Caymanian administrative assistant costs $1,575 to employ, but in the legal profession that administrative assistant’s annual permit costs are $2,100. In the programming and broadcasting industry, a work permit for a sales representative/agent costs $2,100 per year while in the landscaping and gardening business, a sales representative permit costs $1,050 per year.

There is also the prohibition in law against a non-Caymanian employee performing a job other than the one they are permitted to do while at work. This is not entirely practical, according to business owners who participated in the Chamber survey.

“If a business was understaffed one night due to sickness, and [a] bartender was to make a drink and then service it to the customer, they would then be performing two jobs [bartender and waiter] and would therefore be violating their work permit,” the responses provided to the Chamber noted.

Businesses urged government to simplify its current permit system, or at the least, re-train the employees responsible for implementing it. In most cases, however, companies felt sympathetic to frontline immigration officials who had to wade through the bureaucracy as best they could.

Difficulties with the current jobs classification system, which replaced the old “skill-based” permit evaluation method, are found on both sides of the immigration fence. Former Ministry of Home Affairs Chief Officer Eric Bush said in March that employers often complain of being overcharged for certain jobs, simply because a worker’s title has changed from what it was during the last employment period. It’s not unusual for weeks to be spent in a “back and forth” between the Immigration Department and a private sector employer over the actual cost of a permit, he said. “The system that we have that’s based just on job title alone is very problematic for the department. It is problematic for the customers,” Mr. Bush said.

In other areas, the job classification system and permit issuance was being “exploited” by agencies that continued to employ and renew workers on temporary (three or six-month) work permits with few, if any, consequences.

“Some [participants] went as far as arguing that a complete overhaul was needed in relation to the current regulations, while others maintained that certain processes and regulations in place were illegal,” the Chamber survey report noted. “Others stated that the regulations needed to be altered to prevent manipulation and abuse by certain individuals and that these rewritten regulations need to be enforced.”