Saturday, August 31, 2013

Unemployment in Cayman

Several of my blog-posts have criticised Cayman’s generally low educational standards, which are the consequence of a poor educational strategy. Two generations ago, the Islands’ political representatives seem to have been persuaded by the British Colonial Office (now the FCO) not to bother about the standards of all but the brightest of their fellow Caymanians.

Last February [Protection versus Education], I noted that the permanent affirmative-action program installed by the FCO negated the need for ethnic Caymanians to ever compete on equal terms with migrants and immigrants at any level. Foreigners’ expertise and qualifications would be trumped by the birthright entitlement of local bloodlines.

As long as an ethnic Caymanian was “adequately” qualified for a job – in the opinion of a committee of ethnic Caymanians – he or she must be hired or promoted or retained ahead of any foreigner. (Once, in the 1990s, the Immigration Board actually turned down the Work Permit of the Manager of the Bank of China. Beijing called in the British Ambassador, and the problem went away – but, crikey...!)

The policy explains the predominance in government jobs of ethnic Caymanians of doubtful ability, work-ethic, and international experience. In the private sector, the program has pushed and pulled native Caymanians to the top of the ladder in many fields of employment, regardless of their experience or competence. Some are properly qualified, some are not; it’s not always easy to tell, from the outside.

Newton’s Third Law of Motion states that every action generates an equal and opposite reaction. Private- sector employers don’t like to be ordered who to hire, promote or fire. Their reaction to orders was outlined in one of my very earliest blog-posts – Everybody’s Cheating, in December 2010. Corruption, intimidation, tokenism and quotas became embedded in our society. Resentment and contempt between expats and Caymanians are almost palpable in many workplaces. In private conversation, the hostility is evident.

An economic recession, aggravated by the British FCO’s recent decision to rein in Public Expenditure and the huge unfunded Public Debt, has generated 3000 registered unemployed Caymanian citizens (including immigrants), out of a local workforce of 25,000 or so. The foreign workforce is about the same size, split 50-50 between skilled and unskilled. (I’m guessing the figures; no reliable ones are available.)

So why can’t unemployed Caymanians replace 3000 of the unskilled foreigners? Bearing in mind our annual Education Budget of thirty or forty million dollars, how come there are any unemployed Caymanians? The answer is, that for all practical purposes they are unemployable. The combined weight of government disapproval, intimidation and legal sanctions cannot shift more than half a dozen of them.

The 3000 feel entitled to be supported without working. “It’s our Island. We’re the landlords. From Jamaican domestic servants and Filipino security guards on five dollars an hour, to British lawyers and Canadian accountants earning a hundred times as much, every expat sucks at Cayman’s teats. Let them pay for the privilege!

It could have worked, you know. Paying the ethnic-Caymanian community for their “birthright” could have worked. Fees paid by tax-haven clients could have been put aside into a special reserve fund and distributed to all native-born individuals and their descendants. Why wasn’t it tried?

Because the FCO clerks of the day didn’t think of it, that’s why. Civil Servants are all trained to think in terms of precedents. The Whitehall/Westminster system of governance was the model for our micro-legislature and micro-public-service hierarchy. The importation of indentured labour in post-slavery times was the model for the new Cayman tax haven.

With precedents in hand, the whole strategic plan for Cayman was probably devised one afternoon before a Bank Holiday weekend, and wrapped up in time for the FCO clerks to catch the 6.12 train home from King’s Cross and St Pancras. Done and dusted. Well done, Sir Humphrey!

Friday, August 23, 2013

Pablo the Mexican

I was the youngest member of Churchie’s 1951 intake of boarders from “the bush”. (The Church of England Grammar School in Brisbane had always been called “Churchie”, for some unimaginative reason.) Painfully shy, and small for my age, I was put in the charge of a veteran boarder of my own age (eleven), who introduced me around.

Four or five of us squatted in the dirt and scratched our names in block capitals with twigs. When some older boys came by to see what we were doing, we hastily erased them, but I wasn’t quick enough to do more than wipe out my first name and bits of the surname. One of the intruders looked down scornfully at what was left. “What’s this name? It looks like PABLO! What is he, a Mexican? Hahaha.” “Yes he is”, my protector retorted. “So what?” “Huh. He doesn’t look Mexican.” “Well, his mother’s Mexican. Have you got something against Mexicans?”

Shamed, the intruders wandered away. My companions felt obliged, ever after, to call me and refer to me by the invented name, lest they be beaten up by the older boys for lying. The exotic newbie became a nine-day wonder. And indeed longer, for the name stuck like glue. Very few of the 1200 pupils ever knew my real name. Most of those alive today still don’t.

When my brother came the next year, aged nine, he was Little Pablo. Our baby brother came after we left, and he was Pablo too. Each of us was introduced to parents as Pablo, as a matter of course. Parents as a species don’t ask questions about their sons' friends' nicknames. “Rags” Alexander was always called Rags, and nobody ever knew his first name.

Six years at boarding school is a big chunk of one’s life. All of us boarders went home during vacations; on “long weekends” those of us from far away stayed with friends who lived closer, or were day-boys. One of my long-weekend hosts was Graham, whom I bumped into in Shiraz in late 1964 – reported in my blog-post Cattle Class to Kuwait [April 2012].

Years and years later, my mother apologised for sending me away so young – but I never minded, and in truth she had little option. I was in the oldest group at the one-room, six-classes, Hannaford Primary School, and the two others were scheduled to go off to (different) boarding schools the same year. I was the brains of the outfit, such as it was, and Churchie was noted for its academic achievements, so that's where I went.

Of the Hannaford kids, I ended up a political trouble-maker in the Caribbean; Ian wasted several years in Parliament in Canberra [Politics of exclusion, May 2013]; Richard was a wool-dealer in Sudan for a while; Liz Cox did professional modelling in Paris, reportedly; Kevin became a shearer in Victoria, the school magazine said. Everybody else made their lives close to home, as far as I know.

The local school didn’t open till I was seven and a half. Before then, all our lessons had come in the mail each week from the State distance-learning unit in Brisbane. Mum was a good teacher, and the seventeen-year-old sent out from Brisbane to open the School was too. So I carried my parents’ hopes and ambitions off to Churchie. I don’t think I returned much value for the money they spent on me; I should have been the one to apologise.

Academically, I peaked at age thirteen. I struggled dutifully, but could never see much sense in what I was being taught. The learning did enable me to qualify as an accountant, eventually, and that freed me to go overseas and try my luck. To the degree that it gave me a way to make a living in exotic places, it was worth the effort and expense, I guess.

Also, I finally got to Mexico, though I can’t say I identified with the culture. If my mother really had been Mexican, I might have done better. Who knows?

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Unexpected places (pidgin English)

Our housemaid (four hours on Fridays, from an agency) is from Colombia and speaks English as her native tongue. She’s from San Andres off the coast of Nicaragua, which is home to forty thousand descendants of African slaves taken there by their British owners when the Island was British.

Our first-ever maid in Cayman was from Nicaragua – a large and cheerful woman who was on hugging terms with us and our son for years afterwards, till she retired back to Bluefields on the Caribbean coast, which used to be a British protectorate. She was a Miskito Indian, who spoke standard English, too, as well as Spanish and the local patois. I remember her with tears streaming down her face one day in 1980. The last of the Nicaraguan Somoza dynasty had just been assassinated. “They have killed my President”, she sobbed. I hugged her until she stopped crying.

The English language pops up in one form or another in unexpected places all over the world, as a by-product of Britain’s former trading empire. The Bay of Islands off Honduras is populated with families of early settlers from Cayman and Jamaica, as evidenced by the surnames. On the north coast of Panama, the black residents of Colon are descended from the diggers of the Canal, recruited from Jamaica and the eastern Caribbean islands. After Castro’s revolution, English-speaking residents of the southern islands of Cuba fled to Cayman, from where their ancestors had emigrated.

What should amaze us, but doesn’t, is the fluency of English spoken by so many black people of African descent in the Caribbean and North America. It was the strict policy of slave-owners and traders to split up tribes, clans and families on their arrival in the New World, in order to minimise the danger of revolt. Pidgins and patois originated to provide means of communication between owners and slaves and among the slaves themselves. Nevertheless, most blacks in the US, for instance, speak standard English.

Trade is the most powerful of forces. The word pidgin is reckoned to be the closest the Chinese merchants of Canton could come to the English word business. (It’s plausible.) Pidgin is called creole in most languages other than English. In Haiti everybody speaks a French-based creole except the brown-skinned social elite. In Curacao, Papiamento is Portuguese-based. The best-known Dutch-based pidgin is Afrikaans – influenced by so many other tongues as to be almost a separate language today.

Almost. Chris, my flatmate in London all those years ago, spoke Afrikaans, and could be understood in the Flemish part of Belgium. Once, though, he narrowly escaped getting beaten up in a bar for speaking what the locals heard as mocking baby-talk.

In the New Hebrides (now Vanuatu) in the South Pacific, a pidgin called Bislama (from the French beche-de-mer, the sea-cucumber animal of the region) was the simplest possible pidgin. English words strung together separated only by long and blong (= belong). Something like that. We all made it up as we went along. It doesn’t seem to have developed much since we lived there in the 1970s, but – as happened in New Guinea – the native politicians changed the spelling of words to disguise their English origins.

It is now the main official language. The national motto (Wikipedia says) is "Long God yumi stanap", which translates as “in God we stand”: yumi is you-me, and stanap is stand-up. I would have said “blong God” was more correct, but what do I know? Bambae is “soon” or “later”, a vaguely phonetic rendition of “by and by”. Olgeta is “everybody”, literally “all together”. And so on. Wonderful stuff!

Well, that’s what politicians tend to do, especially in artificial nations with no common language and no sense of the ridiculous. In other circumstances, the process works in reverse. One of Britain’s former Australian colonies has a city called Air Delight, named for a British Queen Consort. Fortunately, the original spelling, Adelaide (she was German, actually), has been retained. Thank God for small mercies.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

The slow-boiling frog (Chamber of Commerce)

My friend Colin used to refer to it as The Chamber of Comics. For its first 21 years it existed only as a monthly luncheon club. Then it had a few years in the public eye attending to its founding principles, and then twenty-odd more years of futility. The Chamber of Commerce today stands for nothing and achieves nothing. It has remained silent and immobile. A frog in a pot of water will stay there while the heat is raised one degree at a time, until it has no energy to jump out before the pot boils.

Back in its glory-years of 1985-90, led by dynamic Presidents and Councils, supported by Managers who believed in the founding principles, the Chamber had a strategic vision that is absent today. When Cayman’s first Labour Law was mooted, our people clearly perceived the danger of establishing a state labour-control entity to reinforce the existing affirmative-action program for native Caymanians. For the ruling politicians and their Civil Servants, control of the local workforce was an end in itself.

A new Labour Office would further forestall the prospect of a private-sector labour union. The Immigration authorities could deport any experienced labour organiser brought in from overseas; and the Labour Office would act as the Islands’ monopoly labour union. It was a standard Soviet trick. The British FCO knew that, but the locals didn’t.

 The FCO had failed to perceive any long-term danger in the establishment of the semi-slave workforce in the early 1970s that bedevils our society today. And it is the FCO that is reaping the whirlwind. Its lack of strategic vision at that time is why Britain is having to send in its own auditors, accountants, and economists to fix the present fiscal mess.

To oppose the proposed Labour Law, in 1986, the Chamber’s newly created back-office assembled all the trade-associations into a Council of Associations. In response, the politicians threatened to suspend their de facto subsidies to the hotels. It was a bluff, but it worked; the Hotel Association broke ranks. Government’s annual budget for overseas advertising was several million dollars, and the hotels chose not to risk losing that.

The Labour Law passed pretty much as drafted – a year late, but that made no difference. Emboldened by this success, the politicians pushed ahead with their next socialisation measure – a tax on private-sector wages and payrolls. The revenue raised would fund government’s Civil Service pensions-liabilities and perhaps even its equally unfunded healthcare liabilities.

Again our Chamber people clearly perceived the politicians’ purpose, and considered the new threat even more dangerous to Cayman’s future prosperity than the Labour Law. Cayman’s private sector had already developed a defence against additional labour costs [my blog-post Everybody’s Cheating, December 2010]; everyday shelf-price increases took care of them. But Cayman Islands Social Security (CISS – “the CISS of Death”, we called it) would force the private sector to bail out government’s reckless over-spending until the end of time.

In the years since the CISS battle, the Chamber’s leaders have been careful to stay on the right side of the politicians. “Look what we did to Gordon Barlow” [Confessions of a Subversive, October 2012] was warning enough for employees; “Look what we did to Nick Duggan”, enough for Councillors. [Our President was denied citizenship for sixteen years for his devotion to duty.]

Now the Chamber – and we the public – are back to Square One. Again the FCO and its local agents are desperately seeking revenue, as an easy alternative to cutting waste and extravagance. Will the Chamber find the courage to do its duty? Doubtful. Like a slow-boiling frog it just doesn’t have the energy, now, to jump out of the pot.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Not the Swiss Family Robinson

You have to be pretty fit to be a hippy, sometimes. When my son lived in Guatemala, on the outskirts of a lakeside village, he had to lug a huge bottle of water every three or four days up a zig-zag path to his treehouse, then up a narrow ladder of 28 steps to the platform halfway up the trunk. Then go back for the two-year old and carry her up the ladder; then help his heavily pregnant girlfriend up too, and then the groceries.

I never stayed overnight there, not wanting to be present when the little girl fell over the fragile wooden railings. This was not a treehouse built to Swiss Family Robinson standards, I may say.

The local Mayans had built the platform to his specifications while he was away in Peru and Ecuador. He had bought the land for a song, in order to protect access to a sacred cave where a Mayan shaman held court. Something like that. I think I paid for the treehouse, and maybe the land too; I really can’t remember, and it doesn’t matter now. He still owns the narrow strip of hillside – in theory, at least: Guatemala has no central registry of land-titles.

On my next vacation in England, I checked in with my cousin Pip, a respectable lady who had not forgotten her own hippy life of thirty years before. Was it smart of me to be subsidising my son’s exotic lifestyle? She gave me a look that was half amused and half indignant. “Gordon, really! One should never not support somebody who chooses to live in a treehouse.”

The Norwegian was one tough Viking woman. She stopped for breath at each zig and each zag, but she made it home up to the platform every time. And her daughter was one tough Viking toddler.

By the time of my visit, Ross had been promoted from Ross to Papa Ross. Being el papa de Ross, it made sense for me to be called Papa Gordon. The little scrap spoke Spanish (well, two years old...) with Ross and the Mayan girls who babysat her from time to time: all forgotten now, more’s the pity. Spanish Papa became Norwegian Pappa when they removed to Norway for the birth of the new baby, and I became Pappa Gordon. Indeed, I am Pappa Gordon to both girls, and Linda is Mamma Linda, by analogy.

In Oslo, Ross took up the cause of the homeless, fighting in the front lines. He helped them “squat” in buildings left vacant by property speculators. The girls tagged along. The baby slept through most of the action in a pram, but the other was totally on her Dad’s side, whatever it was. During one Police-enforced clearing of an occupied apartment block, she wandered off on her own. After a frantic couple of minutes she was found in the cubicle of a security guard, lecturing him (well, three years old...) on his human-rights obligations. “She told me, ‘these people have to have somewhere to sleep, you know’”, he said.

Today, they live in their mother’s forest cabin, except when visiting their father’s cabin in a different forest. There is a court-sanctioned custody-arrangement, which the parents observe more often than not. The parents and their new partners, and grandparents both official and unofficial, all provide a regiment of support. School concerts and PTA evenings can attract a delegation of as many as four adults. “We have so many people who love us”, they say in wonderment, to us in English.

Forest cabins are a step up from a treehouse, by and large. But there is a ladder inside Ross’s place, and a thousand steps up to their mother’s house from where she parks the car. We look forward to the day when flush-toilets and septics will replace the present camp-toilets traditional in Norwegian cabins. Then, there will be no ritual daily burning of the family toilet paper, for the first time in the girls’ young lives.

Sigh. Hasten the day!