Instead of launching expedited “executive work permits” for high earners, the Labour Department should concentrate on reforming its systems from the ground up in order to process all work permits in a timely manner.
Virgin Islands businesses of all types need maximum flexibility as they work to rebuild from Hurricane Irma. Unfortunately, the current Labour process often presents a formidable stumbling block. Work permits can take months to obtain, and the onerous steps for securing them require an unnecessary time commitment from employees.
To hear out of the blue that such inconveniences will be lifted for people who earn at least $100,000 will seem like a slap in the face to other employees and their employers.
Deputy Premier Dr. Kedrick Pickering, the minister of natural resources and labour, announced that the initiative — which will allow high earners to submit their application materials by e-mail — is part of a larger transition to electronic processing in the department. This is good news, but no timeline or other details were provided about the transition, and as usual Labour officials did not respond to requests for comment.
Plans to reform the work permit process stem back to 2015, when the consultant McKinsey & Company — which received a lucrative contract to suggest initiatives to boost the financial services industry — recommended various common-sense measures to Labour and Immigration processes that should have come decades ago.
After that study, government haltingly began rolling out some changes, promising after a steep fee hike that by the start of 2017 work permit renewals would be fully processed through Labour and Immigration within two weeks, new work permits within a month. This was welcome news, but the deadline was missed and the benchmarks were never consistently met.
Now, officials have announced with no warning or public discussion that starting on Sept. 3 high earners will get work permits within 12 days and work permit renewals within five.
We understand that Hurricane Irma was a major setback — and that Labour has been hit with an increased workload since then — but it is disappointing for the agency to announce a new direction without even giving a more substantive update on the former plans.
Moving forward, Labour should provide a timeline that lets businesses know what specific reforms are planned; when each is scheduled to take place; and how long they can expect to wait for work permits now and in the future.
The “executive” permit — which we suspect was put in place largely to appease financial services professionals upset by the processing delays after the storm — smacks of a Band-Aid solution to a much larger problem, and it seems likely to increase the inconvenience for lower earners by allowing better paid applicants to leapfrog to the front of the line.
We see no reason why all work permits can’t be submitted electronically very soon, eliminating the need for employees to spend hours waiting in the department.
And ultimately, Labour should be working much more closely with Immigration to provide a convenient one-stop shop for work permit applications and renewals, as is done in the Cayman Islands.
Such reforms seem to be largely based on common-sense measures, and the elevated permit fees should be enough to fund them.
Change should come soon, and it should benefit everyone, not just high earners.