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Thomas predicts exodus of unskilled workers

A businessman and restaurateur has predicted an exodus of lower-skilled overseas workers will continue as the coronavirus pandemic's economic toll increased.

Marico Thomas, who runs Four Star Pizza, Glaze Bakery and Burger Shack, said he had not laid off any staff because the lockdown imposed in the battle against Covid-19 effectively shut down restaurants. Mr Thomas added he and his employees instead took “a collective hit” with reduced work hours.

But Mr Thomas said two work permits had not been renewed and that the Department of Immigration had highlighted the unemployment crisis that had hit Bermudians.

He added he expected more work permits would be lost for many workers.

Mr Thomas said: “The Government can't fund inactivity, so they are going to yank the entry-level jobs, the manual work. They're going to be removed.

“The Government will have the capacity to say, you want money and we can't give you money, you asked for Bermudians to come first. We did what you wanted. Now it's up to you to take on the jobs.”

The Bermuda Government's employment briefs, issued in June 2019 by the Department of Statistics, highlight jobs where non-Bermudians dominate, especially in the food and restaurant sector. The figures, from 2018, showed 84 per cent of sous chef positions as non-Bermudian.

Expatriates accounted for 81 per cent of waiters as well as nursemaids or nannies, and 80 per cent of butchers, while foreign workers accounted for 79 per cent in the farmworker and cook categories, 74 per cent of bakers, and 67 per cent of home carers.

Mr Thomas added the loss of low-tier permits to provide jobs for unemployed Bermudians was under way at “multiple organisations across varying industries”.

He said others faced going out of business altogether.

Mr Thomas added: “Employers are struggling. There's going to be so many businesses that fold over the next year and a half.”

The Government's 18-week unemployment benefits programme for Bermudian and expatriate workers put out of work came to an end last Friday for thousands of people.

Mr Thomas said some businesses were open with reduced sales, but others had not or had closed their doors.

He added: “This is the case now and the impact at this point has been quite jarring.

“The unemployment benefits cannot last for ever. Bermuda benefited by many being able to receive this benefit and having the money spent on goods and services, which kept the local economy moving a bit.

“Come September, there's usually a bit of a lull as the tourist season winds down and students go back to school. Things are going to get tight.”

Mr Thomas said: “Many businesses in Bermuda are in jeopardy and we will start to see the impact of this in the months leading up to Christmas ­— plus January and February of next year.

“All of this will have a direct impact on additional expatriates leaving.”

He compared the Government to people “faced with bills and payments exceeding money coming in”.

Mr Thomas said the Government faced tough decisions — including having to raise the bar for eligibility to get further support.

He added: “I think most are going to have a new understanding of want versus need.

“Given the choice of stay and wait it out in Bermuda without income, versus leave, even with aggressive exchange rates, terrible unemployment and truly undesirable living conditions, many will leave.

“Definitely there are those who cannot afford the cost of a charter, but with limited and sometimes non-existent commercial flights, there may be no choice but to leave via charter.

“This becomes a challenge for the employee, their loved ones and the local employers.”

Mr Thomas said: “There is nobody I know here that's coming from Asia that can afford a charter plane. That's just not part of the economic model that their life works in. This is problematic.”

He said he was aware of “businesses, individuals, communities and donors working together” on the problem.

The Filipino Association of Bermuda last week highlighted the problem of employers drawing up their own agreements with foreign workers to avoid the cost of repatriation.

The legal loophole shifted the responsibility of payment for tickets home on to workers.

Mr Thomas said it was “true that businesses have a responsibility to repatriate”, but that “exposure to this expense right now will not be good”.

He added: “Many businesses are strapped for cash. Many are overleveraged and are trying to figure out how to make that next payroll — let along pay utility bills, or themselves.

“Any aggressive demand for payment could shatter a company's existence.”

Mr Thomas said: “This is not to excuse responsibility. It is just an illustration of the current reality for many.”

Collective hit: Marico Thomas, at the 2015 opening of his pastry shop, Glaze

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Published August 12, 2020 at 9:00 am (Updated August 12, 2020 at 8:52 am)

Thomas predicts exodus of unskilled workers

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