It is extremely disheartening that many Virgin Islands employers have been stealing from their employees by keeping their contributions to the Social Security and the National Health Insurance programmes.
Some apparently have done so for many years, and their actions are only now coming to light because their workers have attempted without success to obtain unemployment benefits under the government’s Covid-19 stimulus programme.
Such behaviour is unconscionable, and we were glad to hear Natural Resources, Labour and Immigration Minister Vincent Wheatley speak candidly about the problem recently while giving an update on unemployment in the House of Assembly.
Very soon, we hope to hear leaders announce systemic reforms designed to prevent the ongoing abuse. After all, properly tackling the problem seems to be a matter of some straightforward collaboration between government agencies.
Recently, leaders tried: In the midst of a pandemic-related labour crackdown, they announced that work permit applications and renewals would be contingent on letters of good standing from the SSB and NHI. But they soon relaxed such requirements after businesses cried foul, citing the time needed to obtain the needed documentation and the short notice provided.
Perhaps a better place to start would be the Department of Trade, Investment Promotion and Consumer Affairs. Since businesses are required to renew their trade licences annually, why shouldn’t the renewal be contingent each year on a letter from the SSB and NHI noting that fees for all employees are fully paid?
And all other government services — including work-permit-related ones — could be contingent on a valid and up-to-date trade licence.
In this manner, businesses that are delinquent for more than a year could be identified and forced to pay up. Though some unscrupulous employers doubtlessly would attempt to skirt the rules, such a system would make it very difficult for them to succeed.
And to catch any remaining violators, government inspectors could conduct surprise visits to a few businesses each day at random.
The new system should be phased in over time, with reasonable flexibility for any employers affected by the pandemic and the 2017 hurricanes. But once it is in place, the authorities should vigorously prosecute violators, going so far as to seek prison time for employers who steal from their workers.
If laws need to be changed to accomplish such basic justice, legislators should get busy.
Frankly, we don’t understand why a better system isn’t already in place, but we suspect that the answer boils down to politics. In a small territory where elected ministers wield enormous power, change can be hindered by powerful players who use political connections to beat the system.
But in this case, reform is urgently needed, particularly in a time when so many people are unemployed due to Covid-19.
There is simply no excuse for a system that enables unscrupulous employers to illegally exploit their workers with impunity.