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.