Cayman’s work permit growth has always been a double-edged sword for successive governments. On one hand, it is a significant contributor to the public purse and a source of labour and expertise for businesses; on the other, it is a source of political contention.
A happy medium where businesses can supplement their workforce without the public’s demand for a pound of flesh politically from those in office for the growing work permit population remains elusive.
Data released by Workforce Opportunities and Residency Cayman showed a record-high 30,298 work permit holders. That was a more than 3,000 jump in permits from the 27,263 on file in February this year.
Cayman’s work permit growth has ebbed and flowed over the last decade and the diversity of its workforce spans the globe.
The demand for foreign labour in Cayman has been boosted by the strong performance of the economy which comes at the time of very low unemployment. Employment numbers in the Spring Labour Survey 2019 showed an overall unemployment rate of 3%, with Cayman unemployment at 4.8%.
This economic performance has driven an 11.1% increase in foreign workers with the most represented countries being that of Jamaica, the Philippines, the UK and India.
As of November, 12,788 Jamaicans were on work permits, an increase of 10.3%. This country continues to supply the largest number of expatriates by nationality.
According to the data, Cayman’s unemployed has declined from 1,464 to 1,407, while the labour force grew by 7.7% within 12 months, largely due to the significant increase in non-Caymanian workers.
While on the books the employment number look good, those politically opposed to Premier Alden McLaughlin and his unity government questioned whether the numbers of foreign workers were being driven up deliberately.
McLaughlin said there was no deliberate policy to grow work permits, nor was there a policy to deliberately increase the population. Instead, he said, the increased costs in the rental market and growing traffic woes, associated with rising population numbers, are a result of Cayman’s economic performance.
“I wish there was some convenient tap that we could turn off and say we have had enough now. Mr. Supermarket Owner, Mr. Construction Owner, you cannot get any more work permits, so you cannot expand your business, you cannot grow. What we are dealing with are the challenges of success. There are challenges, without a doubt,” the premier said as he addressed the issue during a Finance Committee meeting in the Legislative Assembly.
George Town Central MLA Kenneth Bryan raised the red flag on the issue as he tackled work permit projections for 2020.
Local leaders have said as many as 10,000 new work permits could be granted within the next year, as immigration officials said they expect the number of permits issued to foreign workers to rise from just more than 30,000 to somewhere between 35,000 to 40,000 by the end of 2020.
How much is too much?
The latest numbers in the Economics and Statistics Office Compendium of Statistics 2018 showed that an estimated 65,813 people were residing in the Cayman Islands at year’s end – 2,398 more residents than were living here in 2017.
That figure is expected to continue upward given the work permit numbers released this year.
Some leaders have projected that Cayman could reach a population of 100,000 within the next 10 to 15 years based on the current growth trend.
Advocates like former minister and political analyst Roy Bodden have challenged the rapidity with which the population is growing.
Bodden called for a sustainable development plan that includes housing, traffic and necessary infrastructure to properly prepare for population growth, the pains of which are being felt daily as congestion on local roads continue.
It’s a political point driven home by many, especially those in the eastern districts who encounter hours of traffic on the commute daily.
McLaughlin announced significant upgrades to the local road networks to address the traffic woes.