Thursday, January 27, 2011

Apples And Oranges (comparisons with Cayman)

My column in this weekend’s Cayman Net News expresses some disdain for our local custom of comparing Cayman with Britain, the USA or some other huge nation. The comparisons are ridiculous. It’s a point worth repeating here in this blog.

Britain contains a thousand communities the size of ours, and the US six thousand. It’s reasonable to select one of those communities for comparison, or one at a time, but to compare Cayman with all of them together is statistically futile. It reflects poorly on the logic of those who do it.

In Britain and America, town and parish councillors keep track of their resident populations through property-tax records. Separate figures for immigrants aren’t readily available, nor are the effects of immigration on the local economies or government finances. (Even in Cayman, with all the fortune spent on the collection of statistics, we don’t know exactly how many “ethnic” Caymanians live here. 15,000 – 20,000 is a common estimate, but even the 15,000 figure must include a lot of immigrant parents.)

Might Hayward’s Heath in England or Little Haiti in Miami provide fair comparisons, just to take two examples? Hayward’s Heath had a population explosion in the early 1960s comparable with Cayman’s in the ‘80s. Little Haiti has always welcomed newcomers from the Caribbean homeland, and its proportion of immigrants and locally-born may be similar to Cayman’s. Is it sensible to compare Cayman with either of those places? Well, why not? But do the native-born people of those two communities compare their statistics with Britain or America, the way Caymanians do? Of course they don’t.

There are plenty of other places that could be chosen- a thousand others in Britain alone and six thousand in the US. What about Hereford (UK) and Port Arthur (USA), instead? Maybe they’re more our size. We’d certainly be better off comparing ourselves with them than with the huge nations they’re parts of.

My mother lived in retirement in Hereford for the last fifteen years of her life. She lived on a budget, but over the years put a fair amount of money into the local economy by way of rent, restaurants and local shops. Nobody required her to spend two million dollars on a house, or limited her to 25 years’ residence. Nobody made her take a blood test every year, or made her break her residence after seven years, or told her she wasn’t entitled to the same rights as the natives. She was free to speak her mind. Nobody threatened to expel her for speaking it or writing it. Why don’t we compare Cayman with Hereford?

It’s really sad that so many Caymanians have no idea what a mean and small-minded place they make their Islands appear to be, when they ban free speech by newcomers. You would think that some of the people in charge of our Immigration practices would be sophisticated enough to realise it- but, apparently not.

All they want to do is compare themselves with the policy-makers of large nations- they believe that makes them look more important. Our authorities strongly discourage free debate on their hostility towards immigrants. If I had any say in the matter, it would be front and centre at every discussion.

Our statisticians, politicians, Immigration authorities etc. need to get their frozen little minds around the absurdity of continual comparisons with the great nations of the world. If they can’t, they will continue to make themselves look stupid by pretending to be something they’re not.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Cayman's Culture

McKeeva’s “CaymanKind” idea isn’t a bad one. It just doesn’t go far enough. Tourists in the Caribbean region often have bad experiences, even though all the destinations claim that their natives are the Friendliest People in the World (FPW). Cayman’s US advertising agents have always pushed the FPW factor, and there will be nothing revolutionary about adding a “CK” factor to the mix. The problem will be that native Caymanians are too thin on the ground among our local tourism providers.

But is it really important to have native Caymanians as the Kind face of Cayman? If we’re looking to distinguish our Islands from our Caribbean neighbours, why not play to our strength? Our visitors (tourists, Offshore clients, expats’ families) encounter many more expats than natives anyway, so why not make a virtue of the expat varieties available? Our waiters, bartenders and shop assistants come from India, Philippines, the Caribbean (including our Islands), China, Latin America and North America. Visitors don’t care where the locals come from as long as they’re polite, helpful and kind. Almost invariably, they are all those things.

See, here’s the thing. Our visitors can’t tell the difference between Caribbean islands or their peoples. They think we all look alike, pretty much. After all, Caymanians don’t distinguish between the natives of Iowa and Illinois, do they? When we visit the birthplace of Herbert Hoover in Cedar County, Iowa, are we really impressed when a hotel clerk tells us he’s a native of the County? (There are about as many natives of Cedar County as there are natives of Cayman, and we both get the same number of tourists. I wonder if Cedar County has a “CedarKind” campaign. Possibly not, you know.)

It’s a myth, that our visitors want to meet native Caymanians. Native West Indians – well, maybe, though I don’t think so. How many visitors to Trinidad go around ticking off a list of Trinidad’s ethnic varieties? “Chinese – check; Chinese-African – check; Indian-Chinese – oh my God we haven’t seen an Indian-Chinese Trinidadian yet! Excuse me, sir: where can we find…?” No, it just doesn’t matter.

Cayman has people from everywhere; our neighbours don’t. We should advertise that. Attention all prospective tourists! You don’t know who you’re going to get. A Cambodian or Mauritanian kindness is as good as a Patagonian Kindness or a Caymanian one. What our tourism-promotion people need to do is ensure that our migrants have reason to be kind to strangers. Introduce the “CaymanKind” idea to the Immigration authorities, why don’t they? Immigration would be a hard sell, but it might be worth while making an effort. You never know.

Once, I overheard a Filipino answering a question put to him by his tricycle passengers, on Harbour Drive. “It’s a very pleasant place to live”, he said; and he sounded sincere. His statement may well have meant more to his passengers than if he’d been a Caymanian. They didn’t care that he wasn’t born and bred here, Caymanian-to-de-bone. Trying to protect our visitors from the 60% of us who aren’t Caymanians-to-de-bone is futile, stupid and rude. We put up with a lot of crap from the Immigration authorities; please will the DOT refrain from pouring more of it on us.

Somebody needs to teach both the DOT and the Immigration authorities the high value of our migrant workers to Cayman’s tourism industry, and the importance of persuading all migrant workers that this is indeed “a very pleasant place to live”. Until that happens, our officials’ ongoing hostility towards expats will make a mockery of the whole CaymanKind campaign. McKeeva & Co should have thought of that before they started.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Indentured Servitude in Cayman

Discussing the prospect of a formal minimum wage in my Cayman Net News column this weekend, I point out the absurdity of such a thing in Cayman. Our indentured-labour system is set up to exploit unskilled and low-skilled migrant workers; formal minimum wages only make sense in a free labour market subject to the rule of law. We have laws all right, and generally enforce them, but they aren’t used to protect all our indentured servants.

For migrants and immigrants above a certain wage-level, the indentures are no more restrictive than standard employment contracts. But for economic refugees from Jamaica, Latin America, Philippines and India, bond-service can be much harsher. Some migrants have to pay recruiters in their own countries to arrange jobs in Cayman, and have to repay the Work Permit fees out of their wages. Yet they sometimes don’t receive the wages agreed, when they’re here. Sometimes they find themselves bonded to employers who cheat them by short-paying, or by confiscating legitimate deductions.

Of course, poor migrants all over the world are vulnerable in this way. But in Cayman, as in some notorious Arabian Gulf countries, the law is on the side of the cheats. For this situation to exist in a British colony in the 21st Century, is remarkable. Nearly 170 years ago, Britain was the first European nation to abolish slavery in its colonies; it’s shameful that some migrants are held in oppressive servitude in Cayman today.

(The precise way in which some employers hold them in servitude is to withhold a portion of their wages and to threaten summary deportation if they protest. Once deported, they forfeit all the money owed to them. The indentures don’t allow formal hearings. Government Departments and agencies happily cooperate in the deportation.)

In the absence of a local labour union, there is no recourse for the victims. Private unions are in effect banned through operation of the Work Permit legislation. The only de-facto union we have is the state Labour Office. No Caymanian politician will help them- unless specifically asked by one of their own relatives or cronies. Perhaps most disappointing of all, our local Human Rights Commission is cowed into silence on the issue- as their predecessor Committees were.

Now, “the rule of law” is not just an abstract concept. When one segment of the population is openly excluded from the protection of the law, it sets a precedent. When our colony’s government wilfully flouts the European Convention on Human Rights – week in, week out – it sets another precedent. Can anybody trust it to observe other treaties? Probably not. Maybe our Islands’ representatives (the British FCO, in this case) had their fingers crossed when they signed the Convention. It doesn’t count if you have your fingers crossed, right? Did they have their fingers crossed when they signed all those Tax Information Exchange Agreements, too?

Where does “Cayman Finance” (the official voice of our Offshore sector) stand on this issue? It has made an impressive 11th-hour attempt to pull Cayman’s tax-haven chestnuts out of the fire; its public-relations blitz has been pretty sound. Nevertheless, its credibility must surely be put at risk by its tacit acceptance of our government’s selective disdain for the rule of law. Are its directors working behind the scenes to change that situation? Or are they gambling that international observers don’t know about it and won’t find out about it. Hmmm. That would be quite a gamble.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Cayman's Anti-Immigrant Lobby

Our MLAs are all captives of the anti-immigrant lobby, and likely to remain so. That means there is no hope that our Islands’ official hostility towards new immigrants (or old) will change any time soon. The longer the official policy of unwelcome endures, the less likelihood there is of our attracting enough new residents to make these Islands economically viable in the long term. The continuing tension between ethnic Caymanians and immigrant communities will continue to block any trust between private-sector employers and their ethnic-Caymanian employees. The glass ceilings will endure forever. All the political rhetoric in the world won’t solve the problem.

In several issues of the Cayman Net News last November, my “Everybody’s Business” columns explained the connection between the glass ceilings and Cayman’s inadequate education system- specifically, its failure to ensure that its pupils all learn to write in standard English. (CNN may still have copies of issues 2190, 2191 & 2192. If they don’t, e-mail me and I will send you copies of the original columns.)

The state education system’s weakness is that it measures success by the number of A-Levels gained. It pays little mind to children who aren’t in the A-Levels stream. Some Caymanian children are so far behind their peers when they enter kindergarten that they never catch up. Instead of acknowledging this fact, our politicians blame private-sector employers for not accommodating poorly educated Caymanians in the workforce.

The MLAs (all ethnic Caymanians, at the FCO’s insistence) lack the courage to face up to the facts and change them. They also lack commitment to Cayman’s long-term future. It’s much easier to build fancy new schools than to change the ethos of our education bureaucracy. Our tiny community ought to be better served by its representatives.

Politicians during the past forty years have chosen to nourish a culture of birthright-entitlement in their electors, as an alternative to a decent education. Most Caymanians from government schools are poorly equipped to compete with foreigners in office jobs at any level- especially in respect of written English. This inadequacy and culture are largely responsible for the resentment towards immigrants, and vice versa.

In all the platitudes trotted out by McKeeva and other public servants, this causality isn’t even mentioned. They are of course aware of it; but they never mention it in public. Their pious pleas to The Lobby to welcome new residents (or at least white middle-class “Offshore” professionals) are a waste of breath. The professionals are not taken in by rhetorical welcomes. They know that the smiles are false, and that our Immigration officials are available at a moment’s notice to harass or expel immigrants on the say-so of locals with influence in high places.

Those public servants who love playing favourites between different ethnic groups know the harm their game does to Cayman’s economic prospects, but they do it anyway. They can’t help themselves. Jamaicans, Filipinos, Latinos and Indians are discriminated against in the grants of Key Employee, Permanent Residence and citizenship. Immigration’s points-systems are biased against those nationalities, and there is little likelihood of change. The Immigration establishment is fighting a quiet war against McKeeva’s rhetoric, and they are winning hands down.

The best thing our rulers can do to ensure a prosperous 2011 is to look beyond their cronies for advice on how to recruit immigrants to the cause. That is really the only way out of the present cul-de-sac. Communal tensions will only be eliminated by radical changes in the rules governing the workforce.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Criminal Violence (in Cayman)

Our community disapproves of criminal violence, at least in our home territory, at least when the victims are people like us. Let the drugs gangs wipe each other out. Beg the Police to assassinate people whom they believe to be burglars and muggers. Let’s not worry when low-level migrants get cut with machetes or run down by forklifts. As long as the tourists don’t hear about those things, they don’t matter. They’re not even worth investigating properly. As long as the victims aren’t people like us, never mind.

Most communities in the world are morally ambivalent about violent conduct. When Western soldiers come back from the Middle East and carve up their families, we excuse the violence. “Well, it’s because of the terrible things they’ve seen. Watching their friends being blown up by those filthy Arabs or Afghans or whatever they are… Moslem bastards! It’s all their fault.”

Why don’t we have sympathy for the Moslem bastards? They too watch their friends and families blown up- by foreign armies from thousands of miles away. Why do most of us shrug off criminal violence visited on people who are NOT like us? Why don’t we in our Cayman community, for instance, see the hypocrisy of distinguishing between violence committed ON people like us (by our local scumbag criminals), and violence committed BY people like us (noble NATO soldiers and drones), on the innocent civilians of occupied countries?

There is a lot of common ground between gangs and armies. They share common goals – control more turf, make more money. The people who benefit, in both cases, are the planners and investors. The foot soldiers are only pawns in the game. After an American ex-Marine war-hero murdered a civil-rights activist in 1963, Bob Dylan wrote, “He’s only a pawn in their game”. You can Google those words for the whole story. Black Americans were not “people like us”, at the time.

Each side in every war- whether local or international- buys weapons, equipment and supplies from the organizers. Criminal gangs are simply guerrilla resistance forces, on a very small scale. They control their territories informally, operating mostly at night. They can’t compete with official security forces- mainly because they don’t have direct access to official tax revenues.

Supplying weapons to warring parties is so profitable as to cause intense rivalry among financiers and manufacturers. More often than you would think, they don’t really care who they sell to. Western banks financed much of the German and Allied war machines in the 1930s, and the Soviet and Western ones after the War. Today there is cooperation between some US government agencies and illegal- drugs distributors. That’s just the way things are. Western armies are reckoned to be the main players in the opium (heroin) trade in Afghanistan. The Taliban destroyed the opium crops; Britain and America now protect them. Go figure, eh?

Expanding a gang’s territory - and an army’s - is almost always at the expense of innocent civilians. Most times, they don’t actually set out to kill civilians; the intention is to frighten them into buying protection. “Buy your heroin from us, and we’ll make sure nobody bothers you.” “Betray your friends to us, and we’ll make sure your village isn’t wiped out by a drone strike from Texas.” The latter is a war crime, and not prosecuted; the former is just a plain ol’ crime, for which the perpetrators are sent to prison for a long time. And serve them right, for not being more like us.