(Screenshot: HOA)

After a recent review, work permit exemptions will look different when the Department of Labour and Workforce Development resumes granting them, according to Natural Resources, Labour and Immigration Minster Vincent Wheatley.

Mr. Wheatley told the House of Assembly last Thursday that the exemptions were never meant to be a “permanent status” akin to residency or belongership, which are gained under the recommendation of the Immigration Board to Cabinet by virtue of the Constitution. By contrast, he said, work permit exemption “is at the discretion of the minister for labour, and it is in no way meant to be considered as a permanent status, as it is indeed a privilege and not a right.”

After the review, the ministry decided to attach work permit exemptions to a specific employer, he said.

“The intent here is to allow the holder of such an exemption to be more conscious of the importance of continued employment, which will be realised by the automatic cancellation of the exemption if a person changes his or her employer,” Mr. Wheatley said.

When the minister took office in 2019, he added, he made changes to the policy, the most significant of which was the introduction of term limits of up to six years, which eliminated indefinite work permit exemptions.

“It remains my belief that this change has allowed for the correct intent and purpose of the exemption to be realised,” he said.

Job ad phrasing

The new changes will also specify that employers should not use the phrase “work permit exemption holders preferred” along with expressing preferences for Virgin Islanders and belongers in job advertisements, according to the minister, who explained that such phrasing is “misleading.”

“It is seen as a means of defying the work permit process and ultimately marginalises BVIslanders and belongers by allowing someone not holding a permanent status to be seen as on the same playing field,” he said.

The new revisions will also removethe eligibility to apply for an exemption after living for 15 years in the territory, Mr. Wheatley explained.

The minister said this change fits with aims to formalise immigration and labour policies relating to how long someone can reside in the territory on a work permit prior to earning eligibility to become a permanent resident. Two categories of eligibility for a work permit exemption — by marriage and by minister’s discretion — will remain, albeit with new guidelines, he added.

The “minister’s discretion” category will introduce a grading scheme to allow for a more streamlined and fair approval process for applications, he said.

“The work permit exemption issuance in this territory will move from a situation of subsidy to one of substance,” he added.

Expedited permits

Mr. Wheatley also announced that as of April 12, an expedited work permit fee of $150 now applies to foreign workers making six figures or more as part of the Executive Work Permit Programme introduced in 2018.

Under the original programme, applicants making six figures could utilise the programme for free by forwarding their applications to a designated email address, allowing them to benefit from a specialised and expedited service that takes three to 12 business days. The programme was expanded in October 2020.

“Since then, a wider category of workers have been introduced to utilise the programme,” Mr. Wheatley said.

This wider category includes financial services industry workers who make less than six figures, such as employees of legal, insurance and accounting companies.

In all, he added, the ministry has processed a total of 709 “executive work permit” applications for employees making six figures and above, and 51 applications for those within the wider financial services industry making less than six figures.

However, government decided that these permit holders were not paying enough for the privilege, he said.

“We should not carry on in this way,” Mr. Wheatley said, adding that the new $150 fee is included in an amendment to Part 45 of the Statutory Rates, Fees and Charges Act.

“Oftentimes when new fees are introduced, it can be seen as burdensome to the individuals utilising the applicable services,” the minister explained. “How- ever, most times government fees for services are below standard and do not compare to the services rendered.”