Cayman Islands lawmakers finished debating a raft of legal changes to immigration rules Wednesday night, but it appears that legislation is just the start of a major overhaul for the system that now allows the employment of nearly 26,000 foreign workers within the British Overseas Territory.
Significant changes to work permit advertisement and approval processes, as well as the establishment of what is essentially a complaints board for local job-seekers who do not get hired are due to come before the Legislative Assembly in September, Prospect MLA Austin Harris said.
Mr. Harris is the ministerial councilor to Premier Alden McLaughlin’s immigration ministry and has been briefed on the changes ahead.
“During the fall, we will see additional bills which will fundamentally improve the job placement and work permit systems in the Cayman Islands,” Mr. Harris said. “Upcoming legislation is also expected to establish the Fair Employment Opportunities Commission.”
Some of the proposed changes Mr. Harris spoke about have been mentioned in public forums by the premier and others, but some opposition lawmakers noted that there had been little detail produced concerning those plans.
Deputy Opposition Leader Alva Suckoo said he “didn’t see the rationale” for moving work permit approvals away from the Immigration Department and into a newly created agency called the Workforce Opportunities and Residency Cayman, or WORC.
“You know what [the public is] saying?” George Town Central MLA Kenneth Bryan said during his debate Wednesday. “‘They’re just transferring [work permits] from one department to another’ … that’s what they’re saying.”
Mr. Bryan noted that “three administrations ago” another government agency was developed to assist in finding jobs for Caymanian applicants.
“What was it called?” he asked.
Opposition Leader Ezzard Miller responded: “The NWDA. Need work? Don’t apply.”
Mr. Miller’s comment referred to the National Workforce Development Agency, which is being brought under the new WORC agency as part of a restructuring that will eventually dissolve the Cayman Islands Immigration Department.
Mr. Harris denied the government proposals had been developed “in secret,” noting that the premier had reviewed both the WORC agency and the new fair employment commission in open public forums and during private meetings among stakeholder groups like the Chamber of Commerce.
Mr. McLaughlin said in March that he believed the Fair Employment Opportunities Commission would help alleviate public concerns about the perception that qualified Caymanian job-seekers are being left out of opportunities for career advancement.
Mr. McLaughlin said the problem must be handled delicately, as both businesses and employees need to believe that such an employment commission is not being politically directed. He suggested that the territorial governor – who is appointed by the U.K. – would therefore be made responsible for appointing a commissioner to lead the new office.
He also noted that many in Cayman’s immigration business, including attorneys and recruiting firms, have noted over the years that there is no recourse under the current law for a Caymanian job applicant who feels he or she has been rejected for a post unfairly.
In contrast, Mr. McLaughlin said local employers and non-Caymanian work permit holders can go to the Immigration Appeals Tribunal if they feel a permit has been wrongly denied. Any worker can also go to the Labour Appeals Tribunal with a complaint against their employer, he said.
The new work permit approval process would ensure two things occurred, Mr. Harris said. First, confirmation that there was not an available qualified Caymanian to take a position offered to a work permit holder and second, that the approval process would be “efficient and mindful of the needs of the business” seeking the permit.
The WORC agency would also focus on “skills gaps” in the local job market, identifying students who are returning home from university or job vacancies in fields that most Caymanians can fill.
Mr. Harris pointed out that 70 percent of Cayman’s work permits were held in three areas: the service industry, domestic and general laborers, and crafts and trades.
“These are all jobs that Caymanians can do,” Mr. Harris said. “They’re largely vocational jobs … but [WORC] programs will be tailored to the jobs that are available today.”
Premier McLaughlin said Thursday that the WORC agency would be divided into nine separate, but interrelated sections.
Those would include: a labor market assessment unit, a training and development unit, a matching and placement unit (jobs clearinghouse), a work permit application unit (which considers permanent residence and Caymanian status bids as well), an appeals unit, an audit unit and customer service unit.
The WORC agency is expected to launch in January, the premier said.