There are more foreign workers employed in the Cayman Islands than at any other time in the territory’s history.
There were 27,263 work permits and government contracts for non-Caymanians at the end of last year, according to data provided by the Immigration Department following an open records request.
Spanning the globe from Jamaica to Uzbekistan and representing every aspect of the island’s economy, the number of expatriate workers now exceeds the previous high of 26,659, seen in November 2008.
That 2008 statistic was recorded at the height of a construction boom as the country was rebuilt in the aftermath of Hurricane Ivan.
The number of foreign workers in Cayman now is actually significantly higher than the work permit figure suggests. Government has dealt with a backlog of permanent residency applications over the past few years, converting many workers who would previously have been on permits to PR status. There were 4,283 PR holders in the workforce as of June 2018, according to a separate Economics and Statistics Office report.
While some have expressed social and cultural concerns about the balance of nationalities in the islands, from an economic perspective the statistic is purely positive, according to Steve McIntosh, CEO of CML recruitment.
He said the rise in permits was being driven by the success of the economy, particularly in the development and tourism sectors.
Jobs in construction grew by nearly 20% between 2015 and 2018, while professional, scientific and technical jobs, which include most professionals in the financial industry, grew by around 25%, according to data from labour force surveys.
The overall unemployment rate has dipped below 4% and the unemployment rate among Caymanians is now less than 5% – the lowest it has been for over a decade.
McIntosh said the figures should put an end to the narrative that an increase in foreign workers meant less jobs or opportunities for Caymanians.
“Recent history has proven the paradigm that unemployment and work permits are negatively correlated. As work permits have increased to record levels, so unemployment has sunk to historic lows, both driven by economic growth. Our recent experience ought to have settled that debate, if there ever was one.”
He said figures showed Caymanian employment growth in construction and professional sectors had outstripped overall growth.
“We’ve also seen a lot of movement among Caymanians in the financial services sector. There’s no good data in the public domain on this, but anecdotally I believe the recent growth has brought a lot of opportunities for Caymanian advancement. We’ve certainly helped a lot of Caymanian candidates significantly increase their salaries in the last year,” he added.
One negative side effect of such economic growth is seen in the housing market.
“Cayman has long suffered from a woeful lack of affordable housing, and it’s only getting worse,” said McIntosh. While there are plenty of town houses and large condos available, he said there is a growing need for smaller, more affordable homes for young professionals.
“Without some more diversity in accommodation stock we’re going to run into problems very quickly as rent inflation drives wage inflation, and ultimately economic slowdown results. It would be great to see studio apartments for under CI$1,000 a month in the Seven Mile Beach corridor, and ideally under $500 farther out on public transport routes.”