EDITORIAL: The need for clarity – and candor – on immigration issues

Premier Alden McLaughlin speaks to hundreds of Chamber of Commerce members during a luncheon Thursday at the Kimpton Seafire resort. - PHOTO: BRENT FULLER

In his annual speech to the Cayman Islands Chamber of Commerce last week, Premier Alden McLaughlin promised “radical” changes to local immigration and labor policies.

In the necessary work of comprehensive immigration reform, we have a “radical” suggestion of our own: Separate the issue of immigration from that of Caymanian unemployment. Yes, there is a relationship, but it is more one of “distant cousins” than spouses or siblings.

As the premier told business leaders in his speech last Thursday: “Cayman’s economy is founded on the strong entrepreneurial spirit of Caymanians and our willingness to embrace the contributions of the expatriate community. I must stress that our continued success requires the continuation of both those factors.”

He continued: “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.”

The premier’s words differ from what some demagogic politicians preach as gospel. Their sermon goes something like this:

Caymanians are victims in their own country. They are not getting their “fair share.” They are “discriminated against” by expatriates, business owners (ironically the vast majority – in fact, nearly all – of Cayman businesses are owned by Caymanians), and “victimized” by unscrupulous employers, cold-hearted managers, and circumstances beyond their control. It is a gospel of supplication and powerlessness.

However, there is just enough truth in it – some Caymanians are discriminated against – to be anecdotally sustainable – perfect fodder for pandering politicians, anonymous bloggers and disgruntled talk-radio hosts.

But it is a divisive and dangerous orthodoxy – certainly one that should not be used as a guide to crafting employment or immigration legislation.

The goal of immigration reform must be to make the system more efficient, effective, and economically stimulative. It is too blunt a tool to secure jobs for the estimated 1,500 unemployed Caymanians or to fine-tune decisions regarding who deserves, or does not deserve, mobility in the workplace. That is a socialist’s dream and a capitalist’s nightmare.

(Any business owner or manager who is so obtuse, stupid or biased to discriminate against qualified Caymanians for jobs – opting instead to invest significant time and precious resources to bring in foreign workers – should himself or herself join the ranks of the unemployed.)

During his remarks, the premier declared that the estimated 6.2 percent local unemployment rate is “still too high,” and vowed to make “full Caymanian employment” his government’s goal for the remainder of this term.

That is a nice sentiment, but it needs more precision.

Any economist, or thinking person, will tell you there is a significant difference between full employment and no unemployment. The distinction between the two takes into account an ever-shifting workforce (those temporarily between jobs) as well as the gap between available workers and available jobs, and the quality of the workforce, namely the talents, skills, education and experience of those seeking employment. “Zero unemployment” exists nowhere, and, of course, Mr. McLaughlin knows this.

It is government’s responsibility to ensure that all students enrolled in the public school system are offered an education that will enable them to provide a good life for themselves and their families in their homeland.

It is every individual’s responsibility to study, and work, to their fullest to enable their participation in all of the largesse these islands have to offer.

And it is the responsibility of every employer in the private sector to offer every Caymanian every opportunity to do so.

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