Dear Recovery Committee:
Thank you for the opportunity to express my ideas about the territory’s Recovery and Development Plan.
I attended the Fourth District public consultation meeting, which I found to be more encouraging than expected, and I’d like to expand on some of the points I expressed in the public comment segment of the meeting.
As noted in my self-introduction, I manage a small charter yacht company that has been operating in the Virgin Islands for well over 40 years. I’m going into a little more detail here than I did at the meeting, as I think the committee might find my experiences helpful. These opening paragraphs offer specific details regarding labour and immigration policies. Later on, I will also address other disconnects, and the contradictions that were touched on at the meeting.
Our company runs Cuan Law, a 105-foot-long, 44-foot-wide trimaran, which is the largest charter yacht permanently based in the VI. She accommodates as many as 20 guests, served by seven crewmembers. Since my employers lost their home in the storms and were evacuated to the United Kingdom via emergency medical airlift, I am here on my own running the company, and so have not had a day off since Irma struck on Sept. 6. Why is this important? Well, each week that we can get Cuan Law out on charter we immediately infuse around $15,000 into the local economy through the purchase of food, wine, spirits, sodas, fuel and other sundries. On top of that, the guests often stay overnight before or after joining us. They pay arrival fees and taxi fares, and often buy a memento or two as well. Since I am the only person running the behind-the-scenes aspects of their trip, every minute that I spend in Immigration, Labour and so on is time that I am not attending to guests’ needs. When my time is lost, the territory loses income and our tourist product is diminished.
Work permit process
Cuan Law went aground in South Sound, Virgin Gorda, during the storms and, amongst other severe damage, she also lost all her rigging. It took weeks to get her back in the water and, when we were ready to start work on the repairs, there was no one available in the territory to help. I had amazing assistance and advice from personnel in both the Labour and Immigration departments, but was still tied up for days at a time trying to process paperwork.
One December day, amid this already challenging project, I spent a full seven hours trying to submit the paperwork for one new work permit. I was attempting to pay the government its fee of $50 and lost a whole day’s work to do so. Does this make any sense? Once I had generated the temporary work permits needed and the temporary maintenance staff got here, they, in turn, spent literally days among the Labour, Immigration and the Health departments, as anyone coming in for more than 30 days was subject to the complete, regular full-time work permit procedure requiring police certificates and medicals. Remember, please, that at the time the hospital was not running its immigration clinics. We were trapped in a never-ending cycle. When workers were only here for a few weeks, but spent as many as six full working days dealing with VI government paperwork, it made our reconstruction effort much more difficult than it needed to be. The frustration and sense of waste this process added to the high stress of recovery work overall just makes no sense.
Please do not get the impression that I am trying to fault any of the staff that I worked with in government departments. They did their absolute best to help. These comments are meant to help find ways to learn from these inefficiencies.
- Emergency response framework: This needs to be put into place so that policy changes reflecting the specific needs at any one time can be implemented quickly. There are several scenarios that might require bringing in large numbers of staff or volunteers at short notice, so Irma should be seen as a learning experience.
Soon after the storms, it was apparent that the labour market was going to undergo some drastic short- to medium-term shifts. Five months later, this reality has still not been reflected in any alterations to protocols. Unfortunately, this will not be the last disaster to affect us, so going forward there must be a way for specific, short-term changes to be drafted and put into place within days for when that unwelcome eventuality occurs.
As for other practical ideas, what is the sense, for example, in sending people who have found new jobs off-island while their work permit transfer is processing? Who does that help? Let the new employer bond the employee — create a new immigration stamp category if need be — and charge the new employer a sensible fee. Also, make sure the new employer is keeping up with tax, National Health Insurance and Social Security contributions so that, if the transfer does not go ahead for some reason and the person does have to leave, the territory will still have benefited from the fees and several months’ contributions; the employer will have had the benefit of the worker’s efforts; the worker’s landlord will have received rent; and the grocery stores and gas stations will have had income too. Instead, a decision has been made to send tens of thousands of dollars out of the territory at a time when it is needed most.
How about the creation of an emergency temporary work permit? Again, charge the employer a set fee and have them bond the employee. If deemed necessary, hold the employee’s passports. Whatever is done needs to be quick, efficient and effective. That has not been the case since the storms, and, despite the premier’s expressed understanding, it is still not the case today.
- System restructure: Moving forward, systems need to be restructured to match the stated goals of the territory. If we want new business to come and bring in employees, the adversarial nature of the work permit procedure needs to be altered. The phrase used at the meeting was “a paradigm shift,” which, I feel, is very apt. Multiply the cash flow that our little company can generate for the VI economy in one charter week by 10, 20 — even 40 or 50 — charter boats, and it is soon obvious that helping us helps everyone. This is just one segment of the economy, too. Helping businesses by getting out of our way and allowing us to do what we do best is going to regenerate the economy more quickly than any other method — and it costs the government nothing. In fact, businesses generate fees, thereby actually filling the government’s coffers.
I’ve been told that these changes are “in the pipeline,” but, as the gentleman who was discussing health care facilities mentioned, how much consultation is going on with the civil servants who work on the front lines? Are they being asked about how things can and should be changed to improve efficiency?
From my standpoint in this very specific charter yacht industry, and with decades of experience, I can attest that the live-aboard yachting jobs that are available here do not generally appeal to many Virgin Islanders. Frankly, the job is often cleaning strangers’ toilets and living in what amounts to a closet, so the work only really appeals to a small subset of young people at a specific time in their lives. Because of these circumstances, there is a relatively high employee turnover. Yacht crew usually stay for between 18 months and three years. This is great for the VI, as government is continually collecting work permit application fees. On top of that, the National Health Insurance and Social Security contributions that are deducted then stay here. These employees very rarely get sick, they don’t have babies here, and they don’t retire! This is not news to your officers in the Labour Department, so how easy would it be to create a fast track for applicants for these jobs from companies who have a proven record of compliance with Inland Revenue, Social Security and NHI? Am I suggesting special treatment? Well, yes, but why not charge more for a “fast track” work permit so that the employer can perhaps choose that option.
More generally, how about allowing all applicants into the territory while their work permits are being processed? What is the downside? All the same plusses apply in this case as those that go with letting change-of-employer folks stay here. Again, bond them, insist that they arrive with a police certificate, and make sure that the employers are paying contributions from day one. Hold their passports if need be.
A straightforward way to do this would be to create a new immigration status category — perhaps a three-month pending stamp? The officers posted at points of arrival, seeing this new type of entrant, would be trained as to how to receive them, and the older highly-trained officers (who are very, very good at sniffing out people trying to “game the system”) would then be tasked to follow-up on folks whose time is up.
It seems to me that, in general, the government equates government fees with specific cost benefits, overlooking the overall generation of cash flow that benefits everyone when people are working and living in the territory. I am absolutely not suggesting unfettered immigration. What the ideas above propose is that our rules and regulations begin — as soon as possible — to reflect the fact that the entire economy of the territory benefits from requests by employers to add to their workforce.
- Contradictions and Disconnects. At the public meeting, Gerard Farara touched upon the need for more details to help everyone understand exactly what is being planned and suggested. Perhaps once we are privy to those additional details, I will find that some of my concerns expressed below have already been addressed. For now, I’d like to point out that without the suggested “paradigm shift,” the same old issues will resurface. This also touches upon the concerns about reinvigorating VI pride and culture. It would be hoped that people comply with regulations and strategies because they want their territory to be the best it can be, and that they have love and aspirations for the entire VI. All too often over the past several decades, we have seen much more of the “every man for himself” mindset that has undermined our forward movement and sustainability. Moving forward, there are several points to keep in mind, including the following.
- a) There is no hope for compliance with stricter building codes if Town and Country Planning and other watchdogs are not given teeth with which to fight those who do not adhere to whatever is put in place. Frankly, I can’t see how anything meaningful can be implemented without effective enforcement measures. Severe fines? Taking down a structure that does not comply? What about destruction of natural water courses and so on? How can that damage be redressed once it has happened? The devil is, as always, in the details.
- b) There is no hope for a vibrant fishery if the entire territory does not get serious about mangrove protection. Remember, 80 percent of all local fish species spend a part of their life cycle in mangroves. No mangroves, no fish. What little remains of the Sea Cows Bay, Paraquita Bay and Beef Island mangroves needs to be declared sacrosanct if a thriving fishery, as a part of food self-sufficiency, is truly deemed important. Not only that, the mangroves have proven to be incredible protection against storm surge. Helping them to thrive helps everyone, but already the new, albeit temporary, roads at Paraquita Bay are pushing ever seawards. Sea Cows Bay is being filled virtually daily, and what little is left in Road Town is also in tatters. Many mangroves are not recovering from the storms as well as hoped.
- c) Environmental protection in general — ghuts, waterways, salt ponds and so on — requires clearly understood rules and meaningful enforcement. Without teeth, without prosecution for malfeasance, without an informed public, environmental concerns remain just catchphrases, ideas and pretty words.
- d) Regarding tourism, please do not keep adding fees and miscellaneous charges to visitors and expect them to keep coming back. Charge extra to tourism businesses (or other less vulnerable business sectors earning higher profits than tourism) if absolutely necessary and let them pass on the fees if need be. Antigua was barely affected by the storms, and already has literally hundred of dollars less in visitors’ fees than we do. Don’t hand the competition our food!
- e) Regarding trade licences, it should not be a government’s decision as to whether or not a business might succeed. A government is supposed to govern, and is not required (nor should it be encouraged) to judge the worthiness of someone’s dream! It is also my view that denying overseas entrepreneurs trade licences in the hopes that a Virgin Islander might come up with a similar business plan at some point down the line is simply foolish. None of us know what the next multimillion-dollar business idea will be. What we do know is that it will likely start small. By all means protect Virgin Islanders, but do this fiscally. Charge non-belongers more to run their businesses here if we must, but let them succeed or fail as the market decides. A small example of this is “Pizza Boat,” which was denied a trade licence here and so (pre-Irma, at least) was running a very successful business in the United States VI. That is thousands of dollars lost to the territory for an idea which became a business and which would not have cost the government a single cent!
What is critical is that all employers are in compliance, especially with regard to their taxes, NHI and Social Security obligations. Let the Trade Department help promote new business, and also let it coordinate with the other departments to ensure that contributions are coming in from business owners and operators as mandated.