Government at its worst

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The controversy over restaurant potwashers being told to leave Bermuda within days only to then have the order reversed is government at its worst.

According to Economy Minister Patrice Minors, work permit renewals and applications for potwashers and other non-Bermudians in certain job categories have been frozen since last February. But an “internal backlog” in Government meant that the employees have been able to continue to work.

Then last week, the administrative processes were “expedited” and the employees were given a week to get out.

In fact, according to industry sources, it was not just those employees waiting for renewals who were told to leave; it was apparently all potwashers, from hotels and restaurants.

Mrs Minors then backtracked on Monday after meeting with hotel and restaurant owners. Admitting the deadline was “aggressive”, she agreed to “revisit” it.

This is Government at its worst. First it announces a policy, then it drags its feet, and then in a fit of energy, it announces an unreasonable deadline which it must then reverse. And all of this in Restaurant Week.

Giving employees days to quit and three weeks to leave, and employers just days to find replacements only shows that Government has no conception of how a business operates. The scenario created would have caused chaos.

This kind of intervention, no matter how well meant, is the same as putting a sign up saying “closed for business”.

This is not to say that Government and the Immigration Department do not face challenges now.

With unprecedented levels of unemployment, Bermudians are demanding work in roles that have often been predominantly held by non-Bermudians. In some cases, these are jobs that Bermudians in better times did not have to do, or were unwilling to do, because there were more jobs with better hours and better pay. But times have changed.

And as is always the case, if there is a qualified Bermudian applicant for a job, they should get it. Similarly, employers always prefer to hire a Bermudian over a non-Bermudian, because the expense and time demanded for getting and renewing work permits and paying to bring someone to the Island is a burden.

But employers also need some certainty, and in recent years, during times of full employment, the calibre of Bermudian applicants was poor for jobs like landscaping and potwashing.

That may well have changed now, but there are too many anecdotes about employees who are unable to keep time, who bail out of jobs after a few days and the like for employers’ objections not to be taken seriously.

And if an employer receives a work permit for a set of period of time, that work permit needs to be honoured.

So Government has to strike a balance between the legitimate need of Bermudians to work against the needs of employers who must have some stability and security in the workplace in order to survive, let alone make a profit. Otherwise, employers will give up, leading to business closures and job losses.

Blanket solutions and directives do not always work. “Anyone can wash a pot or push a lawnmower” is not a thought-out policy. Employers who have made legitimate efforts to hire and train Bermudians and have been unsuccessful need to be heard too.

More generally, it is worrying that almost all of the publicised retraining efforts seem to be directed at jobs with relatively low skill levels, like kitchen porters. In these times, more effort should be made to encourage people to upgrade their skills in order to compete for more demanding work, rather than being equipped for jobs at the lower end of the jobs ladder.

That will not only benefit Bermudians now, but it will help the economy as a whole. If the economy is to rebound and grow, it needs to become more skilled and productive and less labour intensive. But there needs to be balance.

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Published Jan 18, 2012 at 8:44 am (Updated Jan 18, 2012 at 8:42 am)

Government at its worst

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