Candidates clash over work permits, education at debate

Five candidates discussed work permits, employment and education, among other topics, at another in a series of national debates Monday night at the Arts and Recreation Centre in Camana Bay.

On the stage were two Progressives candidates, Joey Hew in George Town North and Roy McTaggart in George Town East; George Town West independents Ellio Solomon and Dennie Warren; and George Town North independent, attorney Karin Thompson.

The candidates spent nearly two hours answering nearly a dozen questions from moderator Tammi Sulliman.

MLAs Mr. Hew and Mr. McTaggart defended the Progressives’ four years under Premier Alden McLaughlin.

Mr. Warren kicked the gathering into gear early, reiterating his controversial proposal to launch a medical-marijuana industry – producing cannabis oil both for pain-relief and export, while helping to reduce unemployment.

“We need to diversify the economy,” he told the audience. “We need the growth of cannabis to produce oil for medicinal purposes and export. It won’t supply 1,200 jobs, but it’s a very large market.” He further claimed, “It generates $20 billion in Israel.”

Mr. Warren, answering a question regarding jobs and education, said the private sector bears little formal responsibility for employee training, but suggested more such programs could boost the economy.

Mr. McTaggart said the 1,200-unemployed figure was higher at the start of the Progressives’ tenure, and had “come down quite nicely.”

“You’ve got to have growth to diversify the economy, even in industries that already exist,” to boost job creation,” he said.

Mr. Solomon, who served as George Town MLA between 2009 and 2013 under Mr. Bush, advocated both short- and longer-term measures to address unemployment, including temporary nursing, medical research and importing equipment, aiding both skilled and unskilled unemployed.

Ms. Thompson said education and training, while working “hand-in-hand,” were insufficient to reduce unemployment.

Turning to questions of work permits and “ready-to-work” programs, she lamented the disenfranchisement of Caymanian job-seekers: “I don’t have to rely on work-permit statistics, all I need to do is walk through my neighborhood. I see a lot of young – and older – Caymanians who are all capable, but have slipped through the cracks, and not been given the opportunities that others have had.”

Mr. Hew pointed to government-sponsored efforts to boost employment through the hospitality, nursing and legal/secretarial schools at the University College of the Cayman Islands, and said Progressives were looking toward long-term gains after “spending a lot of time trying to collect work-permit data,” gathering research on “which Caymanians are unemployed, who they are, where are the areas they are most affected,” and boosting “external training” to qualify them for permanent positions.

The candidates supported reintegration of public schools, segregated into Caymanian and expatriate since the mid-’90s, although Ms. Thompson used the question to call for less expenditure on “buildings and gyms, and more on teachers and academics.”

All agreed on the perennial election-year call to remove issues of work permits and imported labor from the Immigration Department, instead creating an “employment bureau” to adjudicate applications and inspect every business in the Cayman Islands.

Mr. Solomon accused government of a “lack of intestinal fortitude” to enforce already extant job-protection legislation, and renewed his 2009-2013 calls to designate “Caymanian-only” jobs, lamenting the failure of the Progressives to move on his proposal.

Mr. Hew explained the “failure,” saying “you cannot designate janitors, gardeners and lawyers, saying one is Caymanian and [there can be] no others.”

Mr. Warren called for “a cap” on permanent residence and status applications, while Ms. Thompson, rejecting resurrection of the old “Cayman Protection Board,” nonetheless appeared to support subjective judgements regarding job-seekers.

“I have spent inordinate time defining who is Caymanian,” she said. “How do we know who we are? We don’t need laws to tell us who we are. Like an elephant, I know a Caymanian when I see one.”

Ms. Thompson agreed with Messrs. Solomon and Warren that government was too dependent on work-permit fees to limit labor imports, claims that were firmly rejected by Mr. Hew and Mr. McTaggart, who pointed out that tourism – especially in the wake of 2016’s 75,000 increase in arrivals – and financial services contributed far more to government coffers than work permits.

Former KPMG Managing Partner Mr. McTaggart categorically denied government dependence on the fees. “We are not reliant on work-permit fees,” he said. “They are a fraction of [the] revenues we get from the financial services industry. More than 2,000 Caymanians have found work in the last four years.”

All supported the long-debated “revitalization” of George Town and construction of cruise berthing. Mr. Hew claimed designs were under way to realign central George Town roads and resolve issues of “parking, traffic congestion, lighting and security,” but offered no time frame.

Finally, there was some discussion of the George Town Landfill and the Integrated Solid Waste Management Scheme, under development for at least three years.

Contractors started shredding an estimated half million discarded tires on March 21, while selection of a project manager for the multimillion-dollar scheme is imminent. “We are not doing enough,” Ms. Thompson said.

“I do not believe we have even touched the surface.”

Mr. McTaggart disputed the claim: “We certainly have made headway. Since 2015, we have had ISWMS [the Integrated Solid Waste Management Scheme].” Department of Environment officials are in the latter stages of selecting a “waste-to-energy plant that will operate at the landfill, and “once it is contracted,” Mr. McTaggart said, landfill deposits will drop sharply “with a goal of reducing them by 95 percent.”

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