Candidate vows $500 subsidy for Caymanians in tourism industry

Mervin Smith, independent candidate in West Bay North, plans to use government funds and a higher minimum wage to support Caymanians in industries that have seen stagnating or falling salaries.

In the election debate in the district last Thursday, Mr. Smith identified declining or flat wages in the construction and tourism sectors over the past decades as a main problem.

The West Bay candidate proposes a $10 minimum wage in the construction sector “to stop the slide.” He also suggests a payment of $500 a month from the government for Caymanians in the tourism industry to counter the failure of salaries to keep up with inflation.

Mr. Smith said his political platform is based on dealing with the high cost of living and stagnating salaries, and providing opportunities for ordinary Caymanians, regardless of their educational background, so they can lead a middle-class life. He criticized the political leadership of the past, saying that Cayman has not moved forward. “Everyone must be given ample opportunity to succeed,” he said.

From 1990 to 2015 the hourly annual salary in the tourism sector rose by less than 2 cents an hour, while in the construction industry salaries declined, Mr. Smith claimed.

Salaries had been depressed by the importation of cheap labor on work permits, he said, making jobs in the industries no longer attractive to Caymanians and leaving Caymanians working in these positions unable to buy property.

“We are promoting a hotel tourism initiative where every Caymanian who is in the hotel-tourism industry, restaurants included, and not in a managerial or supervisory position, receives $500 from the government,” he said. “We need to find a way to make those salaries attractive to some degree.”

Mr. Smith estimated 800 to 1,000 jobs are going to be created over the next four to five years. “We want our people to go back into those jobs.”

Bernie Bush, Cayman Democratic Party candidate, said servers and waiters earned $7 an hour in 1994, not including tips. When he was a general manager for Kentucky Fried Chicken, the lowest paid employee earned $4.25 an hour, he said. “Inflation has gone up so much since then. The merchant class kept bringing in cheap labor, driving the salaries down,” he said.

The candidate said the current $6 an hour minimum wage has not helped.

“We have to directly make legislation to make those people pay our people what they are worth and we have to stop driving down the wages by importing cheap labor,” Mr. Bush said.

Independent candidate Sarah Orrett-Ebanks was also critical of the $6 minimum wage, but questioned “what skills do people have?”

Nearly every job, including bartending and waitressing, is computerized nowadays, and computer training is needed to enable Caymanians to command higher wages, she said. “As far as the $6 an hour is concerned, it’s a joke and it’s a slap in the face of the people of the Cayman Islands.”

She highlighted the levies on utility bills as an indicator of the high cost of living.

The minimum wage should be “no less than $12 an hour due to the fact that we live here. We do not send our money back home [via] Western Union.”

Cayman Turtle Centre

Asked whether government should continue its subsidy for the Cayman Turtle Centre, Mr. Bush said the subsidy would not have been necessary if the plans for cruise berthing in West Bay had not been stopped. Mr. Bush believes the tourist attraction should be developed into “a real water park” and a cruise pier should be constructed at the Turtle Centre. But government should not make the mistake of letting cruise lines fund the pier, control most of the business and pocket the profits.

Instead, it was proposed that Caymanians’ pension funds should be invested into the project, rather than going overseas.

Ms. Orrett-Ebanks said the Cayman Turtle Centre is part of Caymanian culture, but the subsidies have been a drain on government coffers. Still, the Turtle Centre should not be shut down and a cruise pier should be constructed in the best possible location.

Mr. Smith, however, is against the construction of a cruise dock in West Bay.

He said the cruise companies are already “squeezing our people.” A new cruise pier in the district would take 20 years to pay off and provide little benefit for the bus and taxi operators because “everything would be so close.”

In addition, properties in the area would be devalued by a cruise dock, and the dive operators near the Turtle Centre would be impacted, he said.

While Mr. Smith advocates more opportunities for ordinary Caymanians, Ms. Orrett-Ebanks highlighted the need for community development, especially school programs for kids and a community center for senior citizens, as the main reason for her candidacy. Ms. Orrett-Ebanks said she has been involved in community work for years.

Mr. Bush is running for his second consecutive term in the Legislative Assembly.

He emphasized his community credentials, saying he has been active in the district since 1979. With four years of political experience, Mr. Bush said, he feels that he is well-rounded and has the contacts “to help the little man.”

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