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Unemployment in Cayman

Despite its large Public Revenue – US$700 million for a population of 50,000 – Cayman has generally low educational standards – the consequence of a poor educational strategy. Two generations ago, the Islands’ political representatives seem to have been persuaded by the British Colonial Office (now the FCO) not to bother about the standards of all but the brightest of their fellow Caymanians.

I comment on local education on my personal blog from time to time, and last February noted that the permanent affirmative-action program installed by the FCO forty years or so ago had negated the need for ethnic Caymanians to compete on equal terms with migrants and immigrants at any level. Foreigners’ expertise and qualifications would always be trumped by birthright entitlement.As long as an ethnic Caymanian were “adequately” qualified for a job – in the opinion of a committee of ethnic Caymanians – he or she must be hired or promoted or retained ahead of any foreigner. (Once, in the 1990s, the Immigration Board actually turned down the Work Permit of the Manager of the Bank of China. Beijing called in the British Ambassador, and the problem quickly disappeared – but, gosh…!)

The policy explains the predominance in government jobs of ethnic Caymanians of doubtful ability, work-ethic, and international experience. In the private sector, the program has pushed and pulled native Caymanians to the top of the ladder in many fields of employment, regardless of their experience or competence. Some are properly qualified, some are not; it’s not always easy to tell, from the outside.

Newton’s Third Law of Motion states that every action generates an equal and opposite reaction. Private- sector employers don’t like to be ordered who to hire, promote or fire. Their reaction to their onerous obligations was to cheat. I blogged about that phenomenon – and about government’s own reaction to that reaction. Nothing has changed since then.

Corruption, intimidation, tokenism and quotas became embedded in our society. Resentment and contempt between expats and Caymanians are almost palpable in many workplaces. In private conversation, the hostility is evident.

The current economic recession has generated 3000 registered unemployed Caymanian citizens, out of a local workforce of 25,000 or so. The migrant workforce is about the same size, split 50-50 between skilled and unskilled. (I’m guessing the figures; no reliable ones are available.)


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So why can’t unemployed Caymanians replace 3000 of the unskilled foreigners? Bearing in mind our annual Education Budget of thirty or forty million dollars, how come there are any unemployed Caymanians? The answer is, that for all practical purposes the 3000 are unemployable. The combined weight of government disapproval, intimidation and legal sanctions cannot shift more than half a dozen of them.

The 3000 feel entitled to be supported without working. “It’s our Island. We’re the landlords. From Jamaican domestic servants and Filipino security guards on five dollars an hour, to British lawyers and Canadian accountants earning a hundred times as much, every expat sucks at Cayman’s teats. Let them pay for the privilege!”

It could have worked, if the FCO had grasped the nettle early. Paying the ethnic-Caymanian community for their “birthright” could have worked. Fees paid by tax-haven clients could have been put aside into a special reserve fund and distributed to all native-born individuals and their descendants. Why wasn’t it tried?

Because the FCO clerks of the day didn’t think of it, I guess. British Civil Servants are trained to think in terms of precedents, and we are a British colony. The Whitehall/Westminster system of governance was the model for our micro-legislature and micro-public-service hierarchy; and the importation of indentured labour in post-slavery times was the model for the new Cayman tax haven in the late 1960s.

We show a brave and confident face to the world, but we are hiding some serious social problems under the surface. Who in the world wouldn’t envy a tropical island with no tax on income or property? But there is trouble in paradise.

Gordon Barlow has lived in Cayman since 1978. He was the first full-time Manager of the Cayman Islands Chamber of Commerce (1986-1988) – a turbulent period when the Chamber struggled to establish its political independence. He has publicly commented on social and political issues since 1990, and has represented the Chamber at several overseas conferences, and the Cayman Islands Human Rights Committee at an international symposium in Gibraltar in 2004. His blog www.barlowscayman.blogspot.com contains much information on life in Cayman, written from the point of view of a resident and citizen.

Read Gordon's other Expat Focus articles here.


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