EDITORIAL – Work permit stats reflect Cayman’s changing face

New immigration figures confirm that the Cayman Islands population is not just changing; it has already changed.

On many occasions, we have written about the relationship between immigration and economics, typically on the idea that in a small jurisdiction such as Cayman, a country’s immigration policy is its economic policy. Today’s editorial concerns the inverse, but equally true, observation – that Cayman’s economic performance drives demographic shifts.

As the Compass reported this week, over the past two years there have been significant increases in the number of Indian and Filipino workers in Cayman, accompanied by a decline in work permit holders from North America and the United Kingdom.

Since 2016, the number of Indian nationals holding work permits in Cayman has increased by 26 percent, and now stands at 1,168. India is now the fourth-most represented country on Cayman’s work permit list, behind only Jamaica (10,924 permits), the Philippines (3,626) and the U.K. (1,798).

Two years ago, India was seventh, and in the interim leapt over Honduras, Canada and the United States.

In the absence of precise employment figures, we can only hypothesize why so many more people from India are taking jobs in Cayman. To arrive at the most obvious explanation, you only need to turn your gaze to the east, to the flourishing campus of Health City Cayman Islands, where Dr. Devi Shetty’s vision of establishing Cayman as a world-class destination for excellent healthcare continues to progress.

In a cycle of symbiosis, growth of the medical center (and its supporting services) engenders a greater demand for workers, both foreign and “homegrown,” bringing an invigorating economic stimulus to the still-sleepy district of East End.

While there is no equivalent “point source” for the continuing rise in Filipino workers, overall prosperity and development in Cayman continues to attract workers from the Southeast Asian archipelago. Since 2016, the number of work permit holders from the Philippines has increased by 17 percent.

In total, the number of active work permits in Cayman stood at 25,620 in July.

Officials say the shifts in national origin are accompanied by more subtle demographic changes in Cayman’s expatriate workforce. Although work permit holders continue to be mostly males between the ages of 35 and 50, the expatriate population is now much more likely to be single and working under shorter-term arrangements, and less likely to bring dependents and family members with them to Cayman.

The figures, of course, do not include permanent residents or non-Caymanian spouses of Caymanians. As we have written before, although the proportion of Caymanians in the country’s population has remained steady over the past 20 years (at about 57 percent), the demographic identity of “locals” has undergone its own evolution, as former work permit holders and their children qualify for permanent residence, and eventually Caymanian status, and make Cayman their adopted home.

Much (too much) political rhetoric focuses on the facile and false dichotomy between the interests of “Caymanians” and “foreigners.” In fact, the fabric of Cayman society is a tapestry of multitudinous interwoven threads, including generational Caymanians (“sons of the soil”), Caymanians by choice (“paper Caymanians”), permanent residents, newly arrived expatriates and work permit holders only planning to stay for the short term.

Make no mistake: Cayman’s diversity, and concomitant vitality, is the foundation for the country’s growth and prosperity, in the past, present and future.

The proper response to such a phenomenon is popular celebration – not political protectionism.

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