It is good to hear that the new government is moving ahead with longstanding plans to streamline labour and immigration processes by implementing an automated electronic system.
This time around, we hope the promises come to fruition — and soon.
For far too long, application and renewal processes for work permits and immigration clearances have been remarkably onerous, requiring an unnecessary time commitment during the workweek from employees whose hours could be much better spent on the job.
In a territory where more than half of the workforce is made up of expatriates, such issues represent a significant drain on economic productivity. But for years, the government has not kept its promises to reform the system from the ground up, in part by replacing the outdated paper-based processes with an electronic system.
The most recent efforts 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.
Subsequently, 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 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.
Hurricane Irma, of course, was an understandable setback to both departments, but leaders’ promises to “build back stronger” apparently did not translate into comprehensive reform. After the storm, the wait times were greatly exacerbated at both departments, and returning even to pre-Irma service levels took months.
Then, last August, officials announced with no public discussion that workers earning $100,000 or more per year would get work permits within 12 days and work permit renewals within five. This was welcome news for those high earners, but as we argued at the time, others, who make up the great majority of the workforce, were left behind.
Moving forward, leaders should aim to ensure a similar processing time for all workers as soon as possible. In the digital age, we see no reason why this goal should not be manageable, even if it needs to be phased in over time.
In spite of some progress, the overall status of the promised reforms was unclear when the new government took office in February, but it is welcome news that testing has now begun on an electronic system. Swift and efficient implementation would be a large feather in the new government’s cap.
None of this is to say that the Labour and Immigration departments should relax their screening procedures, which are an important part of national security. But as other countries and territories have shown, such processes can get carried out much more efficiently and still be effective.
In the Cayman Islands, for instance, expatriate workers pick up their work permits upon arrival. The VI should shoot for the same standard.
We applaud Vincent Wheatley, the minister of natural resources, labour and immigration, for vocally tackling this issue so soon after taking office. We hope that he and the rest of the government will stay the course.
At a time when the VI must compete on the world stage, the current system is unsustainable. In the digital age, reforming it should be a relatively easy win.