EDITORIAL – Mandatory wage survey: Frankly, it’s none of their business

An aerial view of the business area of downtown George Town, Grand Cayman
An aerial view of the business area of downtown George Town, Grand Cayman. – Photo: Chris Court

The phrase “mandatory survey” should send a chill down the spine of every entrepreneur in the Cayman Islands private sector.

The government has recently declared it will require all local employers to submit proprietary information – including employee qualifications, nationality, compensation, skills and workload – under penalty of fines or even imprisonment.

There are many reasons to oppose the occupational wage survey concocted by the Ministry of Human Resources and the Economics and Statistics Office. Chiefly: It is an egregious overreach by information-obsessed public authorities that could cause material harm to the private sector.

The government, of course, provides the obligatory and gratuitous assurances that businesses’ sensitive details will be kept in the strictest confidence. Pardon our skepticism.

In the internet age, any large set of data is susceptible to potential compromise, leaks or involuntary publication – whether through hacking, deliberate information-sharing or accidental distribution. Off the top of our heads, we can think of massive breaches in confidentiality by Yahoo, Ashley Madison (the extramarital dating site), eBay, Equifax, the U.S. Social Security Administration, U.S. Democratic National Committee (Hillary Clinton’s emails), etc., etc.

The website WikiLeaks owes its existence to, you guessed it, leaks. Here in Cayman, the Compass often ends up in possession of government documents we did not ask for and would not dream of publishing.

Keep in mind that the information that is being demanded via the new occupational wage survey is the same sort of information the government already has amassed on the expatriate, work-permit-holding half of the workforce.

As many readers (particularly employers) will recall, the Department of Immigration landed in hot legal waters in early 2015 after a civil servant decided to release that wage data, for more than 20,000 work permit holders, to the media following an open records request. Now, the government is attempting to compel employers to hand over that data for all employees, including those with Caymanian status, permanent residence or work permits.

(Note: Government, of course, has viewed information-sharing as a one-way street, going in, not out. Public officials have not provided precise salary information on individual government employees, revealing instead the salary ranges civil servants fall into, even though we the taxpayers are the ones underwriting their paychecks. The new survey targets all public and private employers, so we assume all government departments, statutory authorities and government-owned companies will be ordered to participate.)

On a smaller level, consider the temptation that civil servants or their confidantes will have to share, misuse or “pillow-talk” selected information on individual companies, either to help a friend’s business, make a profit for themselves, or simply to share a juicy piece of gossip.

Setting aside the near-inevitable breaches of confidentiality, the fundamental usefulness of this mandatory exercise is extremely questionable.

The government says the information will assist the establishment of a “comprehensive human resource baseline database” that will “generate reliable and internationally comparable labour market information” and aid government decision making. Oh, please …

Government is glutted on reports generated by armies of analysts, auditors, consultants and statisticians. That information is, as a rule, “selectively interpreted” or simply ignored by top officials and legislators whose policy directions are more often based on political instinct or political opportunism.

(Recall the debate on the national minimum wage, when North Side MLA Ezzard Miller, off-the-cuff, made the initial suggestion of setting the wage at $5 an hour. The government set up a committee, conducted months of research and eventually produced a report that pegged the proper minimum wage at … $6 an hour.) What a waste.

Officials suggest that the aggregate data will be available and might be useful for “private sector companies and HR associations.” Considering that the government already releases data based on voluntary surveys (which heretofore officials have insisted are accurate), any benefits would be marginal at best.

There are three potential lessons to learn by comparing your employees’ wages and qualifications with those of employees at other companies: Either your employees are overpaid, underpaid or paid exactly the right amount.

That implies three possible courses of action: arbitrarily cutting employees’ salaries (a management decision that would not be popular), raising employees’ salaries (and risking putting the entire business out of business), or keeping employees’ salaries the same.

What is the “value” of an employee? How do you calculate the worth of an employee, in the context of their attitude, adaptability and overall contributions to a business enterprise?

Certainly not through another mandatory government survey.

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  1. A good one!
    Under penalty of fines or even imprisonment someone needs to know employee qualifications, nationality, compensation, skills and workload??!!!??
    Oh, my!
    I doubt it is legally enforceable if challenged. Secondly, as Compass is rightly asking, WHAT FOR?

    What exactly do they expect to see under “skills and workload”? Workload has been conceptualized to have both objective and subjective dimensions. How do you account for physical, emotional and cognitive components of a workload? What about level of stress caused by the work demand? Heart rate changes and heart rate variability? Perhaps nursing workload could be quantified as nurse-to-patient ratios, but isn’t it that being rushed, being interrupted, and having divided attention are also components of a workload? Or working night shifts under artificial lights that disrupts circadian rhythm?

    Nationality? This one is always optional on any Form in the USA.

    Compensation? Confidential information that is never disclosed.

    Qualification? Is it about professional certification, trade certification, or professional designation? How about gardeners, domestic help, construction workers, clerks and bartenders?

  2. Isn’t this basically the same information that they had someone going door to door asking people recently? The lady that came to my house was very pushy and rude by the way, to the point I eventually asked her to leave. I guess this government is going to use the pushy and rude method all the time now.