Although his annual speech to the Cayman Islands Chamber of Commerce Thursday was short on specifics, Premier Alden McLaughlin said further “radical” changes to local immigration and labor policies would be forthcoming during his national unity government’s term in office.
Mr. McLaughlin, giving the address at the Kimpton Seafire resort on Grand Cayman’s Seven Mile Beach, said the government’s changes would not simply involve a “reshuffling of the bureaucratic deck chairs” at the Immigration Department and the National Workforce Development Agency.
“It is clear that a radical shift is necessary … if we are to build effective workforce readiness skills,” the premier said.
Mr. McLaughlin said a 6.2 percent local unemployment rate, according to the latest figures available, was “still too high” and that “full Caymanian employment” would be his government’s goal during the 2017-2021 term.
“The Caymanian success story was built upon the implicit understanding that Caymanians must have an opportunity to participate in and benefit from economic growth,” he said. “They…must be the part of the building up of an even brighter future for these islands.”
Premier McLaughlin urged Chamber members to reject “the naysayers” whom he said would scuttle the British territory’s economic success with populist rhetoric about joblessness and lack of opportunities.
“There are those … who it appears would rather be king of nothing than prince of something,” Mr. McLaughlin said. “We must recognize that while we may fundamentally disagree with their conclusions, there is a kernel of truth at the heart of the arguments of some naysayers and prophets of doom.”
“We are not building an economy to only benefit businesses or an elite few, but we are building for all Caymanians. Both sides [referring to local companies and workers] must accept that economic contract.”
Outgoing Chamber of Commerce President Kyle Broadhurst noted that it would be easier for local companies to accept “the contract” referenced by the premier, if they saw it before it was agreed.
“A new [immigration] system cannot be implemented without consultation and an open and frank dialogue … well prior to implementation,” Mr. Broadhurst said.
The attorney urged corporate and government leaders to have an honest conversation about the true state of unemployment in the territory, not an argument based on “anecdotes” and emotion.
“We continue to require foreign labor to allow Cayman’s economy to continue to flourish,” Mr. Broadhurst said. “That would be true even if every single Caymanian was employed.”
Early on in his term as Chamber president, Mr. Broadhurst stressed the need for a better educated, better prepared local workforce. However, once those attributes are achieved, he agreed local companies must give opportunities to Caymanian workers first.
“I do not believe I have heard this commitment stated by the Chamber so clearly ever before,” Mr. McLaughlin said.
The premier said his government has set goals of getting three-quarters of Cayman Islands high school graduates into further education or trade schools when they leave secondary school.
He noted progress with this in the Public Works Department’s apprentice program, that now has 15 local students participating.
Government’s budget seeks to spend $228 million on education over the next two years, and foresees the completion of the John Gray High School project in 2021.
The $228 million was “more … spent that ever before” on education, according to the premier.
The premier also touted various infrastructure and economic development projects under way, stating that the current phase of the Owen Roberts International Airport expansion project should be completed by the end of the year.
He said Cayman’s government and the cruise ship lines were discussing a “financial model” for the new cruise pier in George Town.
Meanwhile, work would begin on the new landfill/waste management project later this year, he said.
A bevy of road improvements through George Town that will result in “two lanes in both directions from Savannah to West Bay” is still in the works. The premier gave no completion date, however, for either the Esterley Tibbetts Highway or the Linford Pierson Highway expansion.
One project that may not happen within the government term is a new courthouse facility, the premier said.
Although more than $800,000 has been included in the next two government budgets for facility planning purposes, Mr. McLaughlin said government could not provide the funding Chief Justice Anthony Smellie requested. Mr. Smellie had referred to a lack of funding available for a new courthouse in a speech at the official opening of the Grand Court on Wednesday.
“Government found it difficult to agree to a request to allocate a sum as large as $4 million to purchase land for a new court facility … when there are no agreed plans for such a facility and there is no property being considered,” he said.
Mr. McLaughlin also made reference to an outline business case study that included one option for a new courthouse with a price tag of between $150 million to $177 million.
“At this point, [we] cannot afford to spend [that amount] on a court facility,” the premier said.
Farewell to governor
The Chamber also bid farewell to Cayman Islands Governor Helen Kilpatrick, who attended the event but spoke only briefly to tell the audience that she would be leaving on March 5.
Premier McLaughlin also took a moment to praise the outgoing governor, who has been in her post for four and a half years.
“It has been a pleasure and an education working with her,” he said. “She will be sorely missed.”