Cayman Islands: Work permit holders may become stranded

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Cayman Islands: Work permit holders may become stranded
Governor Martyn Roper at Tuesday’s press briefing
Governor Martyn Roper at Tuesday’s press briefing

(CAYMAN NEWS SERVICE) – The premier has said it is possible that government will have to accommodate and support stranded, jobless work permit holders, who may find it very difficult to get flights home as COVID-19 takes hold around the world.

While Cayman Airways has said it has the capacity to get people home to Jamaica, Miami and regional gateways, those wanting to return to the Philippines, India and other countries without direct flights from here may have missed their chance.

Speaking at a press briefing Tuesday, Governor Martyn Roper said his office was in discussions with the UK Home Office about the possibility of passengers transitioning through London, given the closure of US airports and many more the world over. But he said nothing had been confirmed as the matter was under review.

“I can’t say we have got a yes on that. It is being looked at in the UK,” the governor said, as he indicated that his office had received a number of inquiries about the ability of people to get home.

If the UK agrees before the Sunday night border shutdown, some permit holders who have been laid off could leave Cayman this week on the British Airways flight and make a connection in the UK to their home destination. But as countries around the world lock down, airports close and flights are cancelled in the face of COVID-19, the window of opportunity for some expatriate workers is very narrow, if it still exists at all.

Premier Alden McLaughlin said the situation surrounding potentially stranded jobless work permit holders was “very difficult”, and he urged employers to buy flights for their staff who were without means to ensure they can leave if there are no other barriers to their departure. But he accepted that closed airports present a real dilemma.

“Many airports around the world are now closed down and it is very, very difficult for people to get overseas,” the premier said. “So we are going to have to continue to assess that. Obviously, these people need a roof over their head; they need to be able to live and to eat,” he said about expat workers who have been laid off as a direct result of this pandemic.

With many hotels closing, there will be places for them to stay, he said, but government will need to find out how many people are in this situation and work with their former employers to manage it. Those employers have been advised to contact the Ministry of Community Affairs because they will have to make the case that their former workers need support.

“This is very much a humanitarian crisis. If people have nowhere to go or can’t get there, then obviously we have to look after them, but we would hope that their employers do their bit to look after their staff,” McLaughlin added.

While government is focusing on how it will keep the economy propped up and locals in work or in business over the coming weeks and months, they will also have to think about these potentially stranded permit holders.

Although many of Cayman’s more than 30,000 work permit holders may choose to stay because they have retained their jobs and have the means to take care of themselves, some have already left and more are expected to leave this week. However, there could still be thousands of people that have been laid off but, for whatever reason, cannot leave.

The tourism industry is all but closed, but some companies are keeping their workers and still paying them. The Dart Group said it would be retaining local workers at the Ritz-Carlton and the Kimpton. They will be paid their basic salaries plus a percentage of usual service and have access to food each day, and the same applies for permit holders if they want to stay. But it has also offered voluntary severance packages, including airfares for permit holders who want to return to their home countries.

“With a substantial investment across the tourism industry, we appreciate the human and economic hardship our islands are experiencing. We will always put our people and community first,” said Dart CEO Mark VanDevelde. “Hotels are economic engines and large employers, contributing to the Cayman Islands success and growth over the past few years. As we have been for over twenty-five years, Dart remains committed, through good times and bad, to the continued health and prosperity of our islands. We are in this together.”

So far, many in the business community have backed the emergency measures that have been put in place by government in its effort to contain the coronavirus here. But closing down the borders has shut down the entire tourism sector and a large part of the domestic economy, and in reality the three-week preliminary closure could turn into months.

While the last few years of tourism boom may help companies survive a few weeks of closure, few but the Dart Group could be expected to hold on for a much longer period. The real length of this national quarantine remains a mystery to government as much as it does the public and business owners.

Even if Cayman manages the unlikely feat of keeping the virus at bay and the borders are opened after Easter, given the crisis in the United States, it is likely that visitor numbers will remain low for a very long time.

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