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.