Friday, April 27, 2012

Cold and impersonal (Cayman's Immigration Monster)

Besides writing my blogs once or twice a week, I also post brief informational items in several Web forums about aspects of life in Cayman – employment in Cayman, healthcare in Cayman, censorship in Cayman, starting a business in Cayman, all that sort of thing. I give prospective residents (and whoever else reads them) a true picture of Cayman, the bad with the good, so that they have a realistic basis on which to make further enquiries. I explained that in a February blog “Cayman – warts and all”.

The main bad news I have for readers is that new residents won’t be made welcome by the authorities. Our Immigration Monster – the law, the policies, the bureaucrats and the enforcers (political-crony Boards and Committees) – goes out of its way to keep expats in a box, as it has done since the early '80s. Before then, a person could come to Cayman on spec, find a job one day and start it the following Monday if not sooner.

The whole society benefitted from that informality. Employers didn’t have to waste time and effort jumping through hoops of flame; new expats hit the ground running; native Caymanians enjoyed giving hospitality to strangers. No Caymanian was disadvantaged. On the contrary, the economic boom opened up new opportunities for a community whose economy had for centuries been limited to fishing, dirt-farming and a bit of rope-thatching. Cayman’s message to the world was one of laid-back friendliness. Expats were welcome, then. And so they should have been. After all, the native Caymanians were all descended from immigrants; there were never any indigenous people.

But the welcome faded away as our numbers grew. Today, two thirds of the whole population were born in some foreign land. Today, the Work Permit process is cold and impersonal. For most private-sector employers, it involves a frustrating battle with a bureaucracy whose terms of reference require it to micro-manage all personnel deployments in the private sector. Bloodline Caymanians must be hired and promoted with little regard for their ability or aptitude compared with expat applicants'.

Besides the inefficiencies inherent in such a system, the process encourages doubt as to the abilities of all Caymanians who occupy high positions in any field. Protectionism pays political dividends, but it causes expats in general to have little respect for Caymanians at managerial level or above. The Immigration juggernaut is designed to assuage the anti-expat resentment that flourishes in the hearts of a regrettably large proportion of the native-Caymanian population. In my second-ever posting on this blog, in November 2010, I described a “cargo cult” mentality. Any overseas reader (or local reader, come to that) trying to understand the local xenophobia will gain by reading it.

The good news about Cayman is that once expats are living here, and working for a good boss, life is very good. Who wouldn’t like living here? Wages are excellent except for the domestic help, and the expat community is so diverse that it provides something for everybody. Expats of all nationalities and classes (including the domestic help) like the place so much that the native-born have erected barriers to residence beyond seven years. After that period one must leave the Islands for twelve months, in order to break the continuity period. This “rollover” policy was covered by a blog of mine this last June. That’s worth checking out, if you’re looking for a long-term job here.

Life is good for foreign retirees here, too, as long as they don’t mind leaving the islands every few months. Permanent domicile is available for billionaires, but there probably won’t be all that many of them reading these words. Warren, you can give me a call and I’ll see what I can do for you; but please, nobody else.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Lies and statistics (illiteracy in Cayman)

According to the World Bank’s database, Cayman’s literacy rate is 98.87%, for residents aged fifteen and over. At least that was the rate in 2007, and there has been no change in the published data since then. Only 1.13% illiteracy? Hey, I think I know that family!

So much for published statistics. I guess we shouldn’t give our local Stats Office a hard time, if the World Bank’s figures are so dodgy. Or could it be that our Office didn’t fill the form in properly in 2007, or didn’t check the figures it was given by the Education Department? Or didn’t care.

What idiot would ever claim that 99% of our population was literate? I’m not sure 99% of our College graduates are literate – never mind our unemployables, or our unskilled migrant labourers. I suspect that what happened in 2007 is that somebody in government service wanted Cayman to look good. After all, everybody tells small lies, right? So where’s the harm?

Cayman also had 87 cases of TB in 2010, the World Bank reports. Huh? Who knew? Does it count as a lie to hide that sort of information from us locals? Remember how our authorities covered up the incidence of AIDS in its early days, because our tourism officials didn’t want to frighten prospective tourists?

When I opened the Chamber of Commerce Office in 1986, the Tourism Department’s brochures identified Caymanians’ ancestral blood as English, Scottish, Welsh and Irish. I was told that American tourists wouldn’t come if they knew there were people of African descent here. The officials were lying in a good cause: it was a white lie, in a manner of speaking. The Chamber had to put out its own brochures until the word “African” was added to the other. Later, we got the lie that Cayman was crime-free, lest tourists be put off by the truth.

Cayman is insignificant in the World Bank’s eyes. The Bank couldn’t care less what it publishes about our literacy rate or TB rate. Other international organisations and agencies care – not about our government statistics, but about our lies. The classic lie from our Offshore sector is that Cayman is not a tax haven. Oh, please!

An Offshore tax haven is a place (a foreign haven) where people set up trusts and companies that avoid domestic taxes. We ARE a tax haven. Our government receives a lot of revenue from tax-haven clients. That’s why we can afford not to have a local Income Tax.

From reports in the free media (not in the mainstream media, of course) it seems that just about every powerful and well-connected organisation in the world has been corrupted to the point where lies and corruption are now the very basis of their methods of operation.

The OECD pretends to care about tax-dodging, although its officials are careful to minimise their own personal taxes. The CIA pretends to care about terrorism, while sponsoring its own terrorism. The IMF pretends to care about the world’s economies, while conniving to destroy them. NATO pretends to care about human rights and democracy, while shooting unarmed villagers in their homes and pissing on their bodies.

We in Cayman know what censorship is. Investigative reporting is not a tradition here, so official lies have rarely been questioned. The Immigration Monster makes sure of that. Cayman News Service questions the lies, but they don’t have the staff to hire investigative reporters. Can you see the Immigration authorities granting a Work Permit for an investigative reporter? Me neither.

98.87% literacy; no gangs in schools; tough regulation of the tax-haven; employers held to account for stealing from their employees; no TB or AIDS; no human-rights abuses; and, best of all, “there is no censorship”. Lies, lies, lies.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Virtues & vices (Cayman's expats)

I’ve been putting Cayman’s name out there, lately, on a few Internet forums. There’s not all that much name-recognition, to be honest. We tend to forget that our Islands are little known outside the context of tax-dodging and money-laundering. Anyway, I post for my pleasure in getting the truth out about Cayman – warts and all, as they say.

It irritates me that so many lies and half-truths are told about us – not by overseas observers so much as by our own residents and defenders. With 34 years’ residence under my belt, I believe that Cayman’s virtues and vices are much more closely balanced than our defenders concede or than our critics claim. Neither party should be telling lies about the place. If I didn’t believe that the virtues out-weighed the vices, I wouldn’t still be here.

Most medium-term and long-term residents are aware that I’ve had to fight the political establishment off and on for the past 24 years to remain here. The real battle began in 1988 when I was selected as the expat patsy (“expatsy”?) to be punished for the Chamber of Commerce’s victory over the then-Government’s Social Security proposal, and the Chamber’s narrow failure to defeat the draft Labour Law – which latter we described as “a lurch towards socialism” in an age when socialism was a very dirty word in Cayman. The Chamber was categorised as “a seditious organisation” in the Legislative Assembly; private-sector opposition to the ruling party’s desires was considered treason, no less. What was said about the Chamber’s Manager doesn’t bear repeating.

That’s all ancient history, now, but the tales are worth the telling because government treatment of its critics hasn’t changed a bit. Expats are still at the mercy of native-Caymanian politicians and their friends. Without fair warning, new expats might innocently sign their names to public criticism of some government policy in letters to newspapers or postings on the Cayman News Service forum. The next thing they would know is that their Work Permits were not renewed at the end of their current 12-months period. Migrants in menial jobs might find their Permits cancelled in mid-term.

Even protesting against short-payment of wages warrants cancellation, for the latter class. Plenty of housemaids are sent back to Jamaica without all their back wages, and some find themselves forbidden to return to Cayman in other jobs, at the instigation of vengeful employers. Caymanian employers have what amounts to carte blanche to steal their employees’ pensions contributions. A couple of years ago the Pensions Office identified 670 employers guilty of that crime; I think only two or three of them were prosecuted in court. In all the other cases, the employees were back in their homelands and not available to testify. This sort of practice explains the ongoing tensions between the native-Caymanian community and the expat communities. Just about any native Caymanian can arrange the deportation of just about any Work Permit expat for just about any reason.

Nevertheless, expats make up two thirds of the Islands’ population, and we are all here by choice. We middle-class expats – mostly white – can identify to some extent with the whites of the American South in the days before the Civil War. Our very comfortable lives owe a heck of a lot to the availability of low-wage domestic helpers, gardeners, labourers, waiters, shop-assistants, etc. What are low wages in Cayman are high wages in Jamaica and the other Caribbean islands, Central America, Philippines, and the Indian sub-continent. Despite an indentured-service system that lends itself to exploitation, it is worth the risk and effort for migrants who would be unemployed at home.

Liberal-minded employers can and do pay more than the going rates or add to the wages of migrants hired from agencies. Guilty consciences, no doubt; but being filthy rich by the servants’ standards does carry moral obligations.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

One man, one vote

For a voter in George Town, it’s been nice to have had four votes in general elections all these years. I understand that as the proposed Elections Law currently reads, we will have six each next time. Wow. The only real problem is, what will we do with six new fridges? I rather regret the prospect of being limited to a single vote, as some killjoys want. Only one vote per person? It’s the end of democracy!

I also regret that our lives will be managed (i.e. micro-managed) by eighteen elected MLAs, three more than we have now. For 15,000 voters? Amazing! What can have possessed the British Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO) in London to approve such an obvious jobs-for-cronies idea?

Sometimes it’s hard to remember that the FCO has absolute authority over all our Laws and practices. Yet the FCO’s clerks are Cayman’s colonial masters; constitutionally, we are merely their serfs. Their apathy simply encourages our local politicians to act as though the opposite were true, and that the pollies are the masters of their own destiny, and ours. How is that good for Cayman?

It’s only a few months ago that the FCO mustered the courage to chastise our MLAs for their woeful fiscal management. The message was loud and clear: Don’t do all the stupid things Britain has done, or you’ll find yourselves in as big a mess – excessive borrowing, bloated Civil Service, more waste than you could shake a stick at, shameless over-governance, and not a clue what to do about any of it. Yet, now, just these few months later, there has been no follow-up to the warnings. Our local rulers have given the FCO the finger, and the clerks have backed down.

That is irresponsible colonial governance, and short-sighted. As an Offshore tax-haven, Cayman is very valuable to the FCO and its intelligence agency (MI6, the British equivalent of the CIA). We are MI6’s major money-conduit, after London. Yes, our local politicians’ busy little hands are kept well away from tax-haven operations, but that’s not enough to protect British interests worldwide. Offshore tax-havens succeed or fail on their reputation for competence and integrity. By kow-towing to our parish-councillor-level MLAs, the FCO has compromised the credibility of its whole regional base of operations.

Our “international finance centre” loses a bit more credibility with every unchallenged political initiative. It’s silly enough that our leader of government business was re-titled “Premier” – as though our collection of small-island villages were on a standing with a Canadian Province or an Australian State. It’s silly that our Constitutional Bill of Rights, approved by 7500 unsophisticated dopes, outranks every International and European Convention relating to civil and human rights.

It’s hugely silly to exempt (as the FCO has done) our parish bookkeepers’ ledgers from professional audit since 2004, and to exclude our Civil Service pensions liability from the official Public Debt. It is sheer negligence to allow hundreds of millions of dollars of Public Revenue to continue to be frittered away and replaced by borrowed money. I sat on the Accountable Government Committee of the Vision-2008 exercise in 1998, and we came up with infinitely better recommendations than that!

The latest irresponsibility is for new government-owned cruise-ship piers to be financed by diverting budgeted Public Revenue to the piers’ builders. It doesn’t take an accounting genius to know that any disappearing tax has to be matched by either cuts in Public Expenditure or increased taxes somewhere else. Since government payrolls are untouchable, we are doomed to either higher taxes (Import Duty, for example) or new taxes (on Income or Property). Why doesn’t anybody protest about that?

Friday, April 6, 2012

One man’s meat... (religious intolerance)

For as far back as I can remember into the 1940s, a newspaper photo of Winston Churchill was stuck to the door of the kitchen fridge on our sheep farm in Queensland. I’m not sure where my Dad stood on the matter, but Mr Churchill was my mother’s pin-up boy during The War and for a long time after. She exonerated him from any responsibility for betraying eastern Europe to the Soviet Empire, and even for stripping Australia of the troops it needed to defend itself from invasion by Japan. The British Empire was A Good Thing, and his defence of Britain’s own interests was The Right Thing at all times.

In later years, she became more objective. Three months with me in my Kombi van driving from Corfu to London opened her eyes to a small part of the non-British world. It put into perspective my report to her (in a letter home, years before) that Mr Churchill was regarded by Palestinians as a War Criminal, because he connived with Zionists to dispossess the natives. Linda & I gleaned that morsel of intelligence over Christmas dinner in the shabby flat of a refugee family in Kuwait in 1965. I wasn’t around to see Mum’s reaction to my report. Just as well, probably.

One man’s meat is another man’s poison. Personal reverence for a tribal hero rarely survives a change of tribal loyalties – or of tribal ethics and traditions. “Citizens of the world” know this – people who have renounced allegiance to the tribes (nations, communities) of their birth in favour of a broad loyalty to mankind. Ethics that apply to the whole of mankind are called “human rights”, although “entitlements” would be a better word than “rights”.

As a concept, human rights purport to extend every group’s or family’s or nation’s ideals to everybody in the world. The idea is a pious dream – hopelessly impractical, since it opposes every natural prejudice that human communities of any size possess. Why do we bother with it? Well, in practice, we don’t bother with it. Human-rights observance has never gotten off the ground, and is already defunct as an ideal. After all, it requires tolerance of other groups, families, nations and cultures, and no society in the world is ready to do that. Especially, no religious group. Religious prejudices seem to be the hardest of all to let go of.

We in the West are continually assured that Christianity is a tolerant religion; and it is true that Christian communities in general do allow non-Christians to adhere to their own faiths. Actually, most religion-oriented nations tolerate the observance of other faiths, even such ones as Saudi Arabia and Israel, and Japan. However, religious extremists always screw things up, and the secret of religious tolerance is to keep control out of the extremists’ hands.

Here in Cayman, local Christian extremists would like to send all the local gays to prison and to deport the foreign ones. Christian fanatics in other places openly endorse the slaughter and mutilations of Moslems by the millions. There is a nasty cult in Israel that urges the killing of non-Jewish babies, on the grounds that those babies might grow up to oppose Jews. The cult’s fans in the national Army wear T-shirts showing a pregnant Palestinian woman in cross-hairs, with the slogan “One shot, two kills”. Fanatical Moslem priests in country districts of their nations stone to death Moslems who abandon their faith.

All the extremists decry the intolerance of other religions, while ignoring those of their own. Such hypocrisy attracts the contempt of moderates, but it endures. We of the West in general, and of Cayman in particular, have a tendency to claim an ethical superiority we just don’t have.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Cattle Class to Kuwait (T 7 - Iran 1965)

Seventh travelogue for the granddaughters – December 1964

In the middle of winter, well out of the tourist season, we were just about the only strangers in town. The shopkeepers were anxious that we stay around and buy something, and pressed free drinks on us. But midway through some heavy negotiations, a higher duty called. There was another pair of hitch-hikers in town, and watching foreigners meet and gabble away in their weird languages was an entertainment never to be missed. "You really must come!" This way! This way!

We allowed ourselves to be dragged off to the other side of the town centre, into the shop where the others were. As it happened, we surpassed our escort’s hopes. “Hullo,” I said; “I thought you’d be in Japan by now.” “Yeah, we got caught up in Lebanon”, Graham said. He was an old schoolmate of mine who had left London long before I had, yet here he was in Shiraz, Iran, still half a world away from whichever place in Japan his friend Yoshi came from. We delayed their departure for thirty minutes with idle chit-chat, then they hit the road again. It wasn’t till many years later that I met up with Graham in Brisbane and learned all his news. He signed my Passport application form, then, and we marvelled at how long we’d known each other.

Shiraz was out of the way for Linda and me, but I had wanted to see Persepolis, the ancient capital of Darius’s Persian Empire. At high school I had been wonderfully impressed with the poem Ozymandias:

I met a traveller from an antique land 
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone 
Stand in the desert...

...Nothing beside remains. Round the decay 
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare 
The lone and level sands stretch far away. 

Persepolis lived up to my expectations, despite the fact that the poem was set in Egypt. You can’t have everything. After taking our few pennies’ entrance money, the ticket-seller disappeared, trusting us not to steal any of the ancient stones. We inspected the ruins at leisure, but once the snow began to fall, we disappeared too, jumping on the first truck headed south. The day after the others left us, we walked to the western edge of town and flagged down a bus to the nearest port to find a ferry to Kuwait. There were no ferries, for some reason, so we haggled for a passage on a boat carrying cattle.

Quite a contrast to our arrival in Iran. At the Turkish border we had fallen in with a convoy of returning expats in almost-new Mercedes Benzes driven down from Germany for resale. Two days further on, one of the drivers nearly drove off a cliff, so he was fired in favour of the team’s new emergency backup. We two drove into Tehran in as grand a style as a couple of young travel bums ever did. The cattle-boat was a bit of a comedown.

A vivid memory of mine from the voyage is the flash of a pearly white bottom as Linda perched warily on the pooping seat way above the poop deck (what else?) before I joined the five crewmen and faced the bow until we got the all-clear. It was a rough sea, and I’ve never known how she managed. If she’d fallen off, it might have been five minutes before any of us discovered the loss. Inch’Allah, we all muttered – “It’s in the hands of God”.

We got in at three in the morning, and slept on the porch outside the Immigration shed until the men arrived for work. Those were early days for Kuwait. The arrival-procedures have probably been brought up to speed since then.