Fahy: Term limits could be scrapped altogether
Bermuda's controversial term limits policy for work permit holders will be suspended for two years or scrapped entirely, Home Affairs Minister Michael Fahy has announced.
A final decision is expected before the end of this month.
In a nod to the political divide over the issue, Senator Fahy acknowledged that “the mere mention of the words 'term limits' and 'work permits'” tended to result in “a frenzied debate”.
The 2001 Progressive Labour Party policy, which imposed a six-year limit on most permits as a means of curbing long term residency, got a largely unfavourable reception from the local business community. Suspending it was a pre-election promise of the One Bermuda Alliance.
Seeking to “debunk some myths” about term limits, Sen Fahy insisted it was the Island's work permit policy, rather than limits, that protected local jobs.
Term limits were not put in place to allow Bermudian workers to take over from guest workers, he added, but to “prevent the legitimate expectation to residency”.
However, said Sen Fahy, the policy “is not necessary” to prevent long term residency claims — and he said that Government had known as far back as 2006 that “the policy has absolutely no legal effect”.
Instead, he said, it reduced Bermuda's competitiveness, had “a significant and detrimental effect on business”, and hampered attempts to attract and keep guest workers.
Sen Fahy added that of the 6,817 work permits in March, 2011 that were subject to limits, 35 percent got waivers, another 35 percent were granted extensions, and just 30 percent were subject to the six-year cap.
“But because the term limit policy requires that a guest worker leave after six years, or make application for an extension, a great deal of uncertainty is created that is entirely detrimental to the business environment,” he said.
Shadow Home Affairs Minister Walter Roban was unavailable last night for comment.
According to Sen Fahy, the Island was now facing a brain drain, even as statistics failed to show Bermudians taking over jobs when guest workers left.
He said the Ministry would hand over its impact assessment on the elimination of term limits to a work permit stakeholder group “within the next day or two”.
Asked why he wasn't simply dispensing with term limits immediately, the Minister pointed out that the OBA's promise to suspend term limits had come with the proviso “pending better policy”.
“What in fact we discovered is that maybe we should be scrapping them altogether.”
Sen Fahy added that he was “not anticipating an inordinate amount of time” for a final decision to be made on whether or not to dispense with the limits entirely.
And he also hinted that Government could implement a system that would show “when a work permit is coming up for renewal”.
“Woe betide any employer who ignores work permit policy,” he warned.
Sen Fahy said he couldn't remember the last time he'd seen an employer prosecuted who breached work permit laws, and that stiffer enforcement was needed.
“Government is ever mindful of the legitimate needs and expectations of Bermudians — those who are Bermudian by birth, and those who have already become Bermudian by grant,” he said. “But unless we have a major swelling in birth rates, Bermuda will never supply enough Bermudians to satisfy the job market. In order for Bermuda's economy to thrive, there is a need for guest workers into the foreseeable future.”
In the meantime normal work permit policies and procedures continue to apply, he said.
Regardless of whether Government suspends the current term limit policy, or eliminates it entirely, work permit holders will be required to sign a declaration confirming they understand that Bermuda law does not confer them rights of permanent residence, and that holders have no expectation of such residence.
Sen Fahy also advised guest workers with concerns that their local employers might be breaching the conditions of their employment to contact the Department of Immigration.
Term limits have driven workers off the Island and should be overturned rather than given a two-year reprieve, according to the Bermuda Chamber of Commerce.
“The Chamber's position has always been that term limits have been a significant cause for the reduction in the number of people living and working in the Island, and a major reason for the economic decline we continue to experience,” Chamber President Ronnie Viera told The Royal Gazette.
“Therefore, we have always called for the policy to be abolished. Suspension of the policy will merely cause more uncertainty.”
Mr Viera said the policy's impact on long-term residency claims could be measured by “the numbers that have left”.
“However, the damage caused has been significant — so an alternative method is required to address that concern.”
The policy was consistently disliked by the Chamber, even as the Progressive Labour Party Government mulled extending the six-year limit.
Meanwhile, the Association of Bermuda Insurers and Reinsurers (ABIR) voiced support for “the exploration of changes to the work permits law generally, and term limits specifically”.
ABIR President Brad Kading said: “As with the previous government, which was exploring changes, we support efforts to see what can be done to improve job creation in Bermuda and to ensure that the (re) insurance business can thrive here. Liberalisation would be viewed positively. We believe the more senior executives that can work here, the more job opportunities will be available for everyone.”
Bermuda Employers' Council (BEC) head Keith Jensen said expanded opportunities for international business could only benefit the Island.
With 80 percent of the economy contributed by IB, Mr Jensen said it made sense to “remove stumbling blocks and to make the Island attractive internationally”.
“We believe it can be done without jeopardising the legitimate interests of Bermudians,” he added. “We have many advantages compared to our international competitors, but we are an expensive place to do business so we have to regain momentum. Suspending or eliminating our term limit policy will position us to compete with, say, the Caymans that suspended Term Limits in 2011, and other jurisdictions that have no term limits at all.”
Many persons have left the Island who were replaced by other non-Bermudians, he said, “effectively depriving the business of continuity to train Bermudians, making expansion more difficult with higher risks, and setting the business back as a new replacement person becomes oriented to the Island, employees and customers”.
Noting the Minister's remarks on punishing employers who break the rules with work permits, Mr Jensen said: “As a member of the Ministry of Home Affairs stakeholder consultative group, we understand the need for the Ministry to pursue and increase penalties for wilful violators of Immigration Laws and procedures. The BEC backs best practices and does not support firms that seek a competitive advantage by flouting Immigration policies and procedures.”