Immigration solutions for us all

  • Tough question: Wayne Caines, the Minister of National Security (Photograph by Akil Simmons)

    Tough question: Wayne Caines, the Minister of National Security (Photograph by Akil Simmons)

“When people are coming to talk to me in my office, they’re not saying they hate international business. They’re saying, ‘I’m not eating, my son’s not working, how do I get opportunities in this country? So how can I agree, Mr Caines, to you giving all these people PRCs and status when my children are not working?’” — Wayne Caines, Minister of National Security

Bermudians, and black Bermudians in particular, have a healthy and well-earned fear of displacement from their own community. Those who want to see Bermuda’s immigration restrictions eased must understand this if they ever want to bring about reform.

But Bermudians who fear displacement as a result of immigration to Bermuda, especially when those immigrants may not look like them, need to recognise that immigration reform is critical to their own livelihoods and Bermuda’s survival.

Bermuda’s history is replete with examples of racially motivated immigration and emigration. Through the first 230-odd years of Bermuda’s history, as the white powers that be administered the immoral structure of slavery for their benefit, freed blacks were “encouraged” and often forced to leave their island home. White slaveholders knew that the mere presence of successful free blacks living side by side with the enslaved was an existential threat to the system.

When slavery was finally abolished in 1834, it was quickly replaced with measures aimed at restricting black Bermudian progress and protecting the privileges that whites enjoyed. This system of formal and informal segregation was elaborated on and defended until 1959 when the Theatre Boycott struck the first blows against it, and the whole structure of formal segregation collapsed — Wizard of Oz-like — in only nine years.

Throughout this period, there were also efforts to replace free black labour with other forms, including the arrival of Portuguese workers from the mid-19th century on. The arrival of black West Indians in the late 19th century to work on the Dockyard is another story — but it must be remembered, as has now been well documented, largely through the story of the Reverend Charles Monk, that the conditions in which they were required to work were inhumane.

Segregation and the importation of whites to work as teachers, nurses, policemen and more in the postwar period have also been interpreted as further efforts by the white establishment to shore up its own population, while the displacement of the largely black community in Tucker’s Town to make way for the Castle Harbour Hotel and the Mid Ocean Club in the 1920s is seen as further evidence of the sacrifices made by one segment of the community for the benefit of all.

While historians will debate to what degree these initiatives were racially motivated and the degree to which other intentions lay behind them, what matters here is that for the black community, this is one narrative with one theme — the displacement of the black community from the only place most can legitimately call home.

These fears, which are deeply held, must be taken into account and respected in any immigration reform effort. Former immigration minister Michael Fahy learnt this in the previous government. But these fears, and Mr Caines’s calls for a step change in immigration in this newspaper last Wednesday goes to this, cannot also create an immoveable barrier to change, particularly if that failure to change ends up hurting all Bermudians — not least those who are trying to protect themselves.

Relaxing immigration restrictions in Bermuda is not the panacea for Bermuda’s economic woes. But they are an essential part of creating the conditions by which Bermuda’s economy can get out of reverse and into forward gear. Indeed, the Government has already recognised this in relaxing immigration rules for fintech start-ups.

There is an assumption, which is captured in the quote at the beginning, which captures the fears and misconceptions around immigration. The statement is: “How can I agree, Mr Caines, to you giving all these people PRCs and status when my children are not working?”

The assumption is that if a person not born in Bermuda holds a job, then a Bermudian must necessarily have been deprived of the same job. And there is no question that the immigration process has been abused in the past. Again, historians can argue whether this was random and subjective or systemic.

But basic mathematics proves this cannot always be the case. There are about 35,000 jobs in Bermuda. According to the 2016 Census, there are about 26,000 Bermudians of working age. That leaves roughly 9,000 jobs that must be held by non-Bermudians.

That reality connects with two critical insights about the Bermuda economy. The first, best enunciated by former finance minister Bob Richards, is that because Bermuda produces almost no goods of any kind, its survival is dependent on the sale of services that generate the foreign currency Bermuda needs to import everything it consumes.

If Bermuda fails to earn foreign currency, then Bermuda fails. It does not matter who owns the grocery stores, doctor’s offices or construction companies. Without healthy foreign currency earnings, none of this activity can take place. Thus, it is an economic imperative that Bermuda must do all that it can to make sure that these foreign currency earners are successful. From the end of the Second World War to about the mid-1990s, Bermuda earned most of its foreign currency from tourism, with smaller amounts coming from the rapidly growing international business sector. From the mid-1990s until today, international business has been the leading foreign currency earner, with tourism a distant runner-up.

And like it or not, international business will always require foreign workers — from the CEO suite down.

This is where the second insight comes in. The late columnist Larry Burchall was an iconoclastic who recognised that the island’s international business workers were not materially different in economic terms from the tourists who previously delivered the foreign exchange the island needed.

The international business workers just stayed longer, which in turn meant Bermuda needed fewer of them, although he identified a minimum number of approximately 38,000 total jobs, with about 10,000 held by non-Bermudians.

Their employment income, which was derived entirely from foreign exchange earnings, was what fuelled the rest of the economy. By extension, they should not be regarded as foreign interlopers but as Bermuda’s customers, just as tourists were and are. And like tourists, Bermuda should make them feel as welcome and comfortable as possible.

This insight has never been entirely embraced in Bermuda and if tourists and international business workers are twins, they are fraternal rather than identical; the key difference being that Bermudians were never in competition with tourists for hotel beds, but they can be for jobs in international business or the companies that service the sector.

Despite that difference, the insight is valid. Where the parent who spoke to Mr Caines saw the non-Bermudian seeking Bermuda status as competition for their adult Bermudian child, there is an opposite argument to be made; that that non-Bermudian may actually be creating a job for the Bermudian, and that without the 9,000 jobs that non-Bermudians fill, far more Bermudians would be starving. If that non-Bermudian is indeed creating jobs, should they not be welcomed to Bermuda rather than being made to feel like a stepchild?

This is not to say that every non-Bermudian worker in Bermuda is an executive creating bushels of jobs. Many non-Bermudians are in low-paying work where they may be in direct competition with Bermudians who lack the skills to compete for higher-paying work. This pressure is likely to grow — the world of work is changing very rapidly, with automation eliminating many rote white and blue-collar jobs that once paid well.

Mr Caines has called for a step change in immigration and David Burt, the Premier, has called for Bermuda to drop the outmoded ideas of the last century. Both are right, although perhaps not in the full sense they meant. Bermuda cannot depend on outmoded approaches to immigration and other forms of regulation and hope to compete with the likes of the Cayman Islands and elsewhere. Quite simply, the student has become the teacher and if Bermuda is to get back on the path to economic growth, it cannot rely on the practices of the past, in business and elsewhere, if it wants to succeed.

If Bermuda wants to thrive, it needs to change the conditions in which businesses operate here. Once known as a flexible and business-friendly jurisdiction, Bermuda has become sclerotic, over-regulated and bureaucratic. Part of that change also requires changing immigration restrictions.

But the Government is right to try to tie immigration relaxations to Bermudian employment and development. Given Bermuda’s history, that is the only way that this can work politically. Only when Bermudians see that economic growth is benefiting them will they embrace the changes we must make to survive, to get the economy growing and to get young people — Bermudian and non-Bermudian — back on the island.

Mr Burt said recently that Bermudians must shed the methods of the 1980s, meaning specifically the economic model of the time. That’s right. But what Bermuda does need to return to is the mood of the 1980s because that was a time when Bermuda enjoyed a steady growth from two industries, a burgeoning and confident black middle class and a sense that, together, Bermudians could emerge from a troubled history and achieve great things.

To achieve that, much more needs to be done in everything from education to infrastructure — especially education — but it needs to start with thought-through immigration reform that will encourage people to come and invest in the Island in a way that benefits all Bermudians.

UPDATE: this editorial has been amended to clarify that Wayne Caines did not disclose the gender of the parent in his quote to this newspaper

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Published Nov 25, 2019 at 8:00 am (Updated Nov 25, 2019 at 3:39 pm)

Immigration solutions for us all

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