Immigration and politics

I recall a story of a man living in Italy who wanted to move to America to make a better life for his family. While in Italy he was told that the streets in America were paved with gold and when he arrived in America he learned three things:  

Firstly, the streets were not paved with gold. Secondly, the streets were not paved at all, and thirdly, they expected him to pave the streets.

While the above may have been an eye opening experience for that Italian immigrant, his experience is nothing new. For centuries there have been explorers and travelers from the Old Worlds of Europe, Asia, and Africa who were looking for opportunities in the New World of the Americas. In biblical times, people traveled to Egypt and Persia seeking opportunity.

Today, it is no different.

For us here in the Cayman Islands, we too at one time in our history sought opportunities elsewhere. Some of our ancestors went to sea and others moved to Honduras, Nicaragua, Jamaica, and the United States to make a living. Today, through the grace of God, and the right legislation at the right time, the Cayman Islands is now a land of opportunity and has placed us in a position to return the hospitality that was once provided to many of our ancestors who traveled overseas to make a better life.

Unfortunately, the Caymanian dream is becoming a nightmare for both Caymanians and foreign workers because of an inability to properly manage the local labor needs of a country that operates in an international arena.

The Cayman Islands, like countries in North America and Europe, have not adapted to the new world expanded by globalization but made smaller through technology.

Another unfortunate similarity is that the voters in those countries, similar to the voters in the Cayman Islands expect their politicians to fix the problem when in fact it is politicians that caused the problem in the first place by trying to manipulate immigration policy to fix a labor problem.

Simply put, immigration deals with the movements in and out of a country whereas labor is much more complex and is subject to the mechanics of the free market system of supply and demand and further complicated by human behavior.

What is clear in the Cayman Islands is the lack of understanding of our socio-economic model by our elected leaders coupled with a populace that is unsure of the role of government in a globalized world.  

A classic example of late is the push by politicians to highlight income inequality – something that has been around since the beginning of time. It is important to understand that the Cayman Islands, like many other democracies around the world, was not built on income equality but rather on income mobility; the ability for many of us to change our lot in life through hard work, perseverance, and determination.

I deliberately excluded education as not to lend to the fallacy that the role of education is to make a person employable. The role of education is to make a person trainable and being trainable is what makes a person employable.

It is that trainability coupled with hard work, perseverance and determination that created famous college dropouts that went on to become global titans such as Bill Gates of Microsoft, Steve Jobs of Apple, and Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook.

Where the Cayman Islands fell short, as with other Western countries, is the lack of investment in their population by the elected leaders who prefer to build monuments as proof that that they did something. At the time of writing this article, one of the issues facing the country is an annual shortfall of CI$500k for the local college owned by the government.

The current administration did not hesitate to spend over CI$100 million on infrastructure six years ago but cannot find 0.5 percent of that amount required now to maintain and enhance the curriculum.

The Cayman Islands is a service based economy where people sell their skills to make a living and investments must be made to ensure that those skills are refreshed and honed to remain competitive in an ever changing world. If not, we run the risk of creating a society that will lack the necessary skills to meet the labor demands of the country.

This then begs the question as to who is ultimately responsible for ensuring that the investment is made to ensure that people skillsets remain up to date. The answer is simple: “we the people” collectively known as the government.

There is a saying that people know what they know and don’t know what they don’t know. Unfortunately, “we the people” over many decades chose people to represent us that just didn’t know, and for years they tried to convince us that work permit holders should train Caymanians to replace them and that the employers should ensure that Caymanians are trained to replace an expatriate worker.

First of all, businesses are incorporated to make a profit for their shareholders and not to train Caymanians. If they choose to do so then we should all applaud them for being good corporate citizens.

If a company does decide to train Caymanians to replace an expatriate worker they are not doing it because it is the law. They are doing it because it makes good business sense to increase productivity, reduce costs and/or for succession planning. Secondly, in all my years of studies, I was never once taught how to train someone to take my job. As a matter of fact, I was actually trained how to keep my job.

The primary incentive for an employee to train someone to take their job is when they are looking to take a better job and need to ensure there is a replacement for their old job.

We would all be foolish to think that any worker would leave his or her family or uproot his or her family to come to the Cayman Islands and train someone to replace them just to start the process over. But for some strange reason leaders of the Cayman Islands want us to believe that this is the way the real world works. 

Another area of misunderstanding is the makeup of the main drivers of our local economy – international financial services and tourism. I used the word international for a reason. To highlight the fact that our financial services industry is largely driven by international players and that our tourism sector is heavily dependent on international visitors.

Why? To remind you the reader that if we are going to play in the international and/or global arenas we must prepare our people to meet and exceed the global standards of the companies that operate in the Cayman Islands.

We cannot expect that a major international hotel chain will move to the Cayman Islands just to sell Caymanian hospitality. They are in the business of selling rooms and providing a great service to their guests to make a profit and provide their shareholders with a return on their investments.

Likewise, an international accounting firm isn’t in the Cayman Islands to sell the skills of the local workforce. Instead, they are part of a global team and are in the business of selling industry best practices. So the real question is why are we in this position today? 

To provide an answer, I will have to provide a brief history lesson. Shortly after the end of the Cold War between the former Soviet Union and the United States and her allies, the Iron Curtain and the Bamboo Curtain came down opening the economies of Eastern Europe and many Asian countries resulting in 2.6 billion people entering the global workforce.

Any economists in a capitalist society will tell you that when supply increases prices will fall resulting in cheaper labor. At the same time, there was also an explosion in technological advances driven by growth in the internet that made the global world more connected.

This oversupply of labor coupled with the ability to reach across the globe with relative ease gave employers the ability to recruit from any country at any time for almost any price for the best available talent for their money. Equally so, it also gave employees in those countries access to jobs in other countries for which they were eager to apply.

Employers benefited the most as they are now able to hire qualified individuals to do entry level work and in essence increase productivity at a lower cost. Is this situation unique to Cayman? Or is it just a case of the Cayman Islands catching up to the rest of the world?

Would it surprise you to know that there are over 115,000 janitors in the U.S. that hold a college degree? Or that there are over 317,000 waiters and waitresses that have college degrees and more than 8,000 of them have PhDs?  One study done in the United States found that almost half of college graduates are doing jobs that they are overqualified for, resulting in the issue of underemployment – another story for another time.

If you are curious as to what happened to our Italian immigrant who was expected to pave the streets; he went to America and he actually paved the streets and made a better life for his family who later joined him in America. I will close with the following suggestions that may be somewhat controversial but hopefully a starting point for discussion that may pave the way for a better Cayman.

  1. Stop treating education as an expense but rather an investment in people.
  2. Re-integrate the schools. Allow expatriate children to attend public schools for a fee. Not only will this expose our children to competition earlier but also build awareness and acceptance from an earlier age.
  3. Allow some foreign employees to possess their own work permits. This will allow the market forces to work as their inability to change job suppress the market. 
  4. Stop social graduation and move the school leaving age to 18. No child should enter the workforce with anything less than an Associate’s degree.
  5. Invest more in the local universities. Why spend millions every year investing in another country’s education system?
  6. IIf we have to send our children overseas to further their studies, should we consider other colleges than those in the U.S. and the U.K.? A recent study conducted by the OECD in 23 countries found that people between the ages of 16-34 in the U.S. and the U.K. were at the bottom compared to their peers in areas such as literacy, math, and problem solving. 

The Cayman Islands is a modern day land of opportunity as evidenced by the thousands of people who have moved from elsewhere, assimilated, and call the Cayman Islands home. The waiting list of people anticipating and wanting to call the Cayman Islands home is growing every day.

It should also be highlighted that the success of our beloved Cayman Islands was built not only on hard work, perseverance and determination by our ancestors but also their ability and willingness to embrace our diversity and be welcoming to others.

Like it or not, whether we arrived by pain or plane….we are all in the same boat now. Let’s paddle together or run the risk of ending up in another creek…without a paddle.



Workers line up outside the Immigration Department.