Immigrants are human not units of labour

| 20/05/2008

By Wendy Ledger – Posted Tuesday, 20 May 2008


Although it is still early days and there will be many revisions and
debates about the policy directives that will emerge from the
comprehensive National Assessment of Living Conditions, a few key
points are already apparent. The report’s major findings are quite
clear: Cayman has a relatively low level of poverty and the majority
of the very poorest among us are immigrants.

In the first public airing of this extensive document, it is already
easy to detect a little discomfort between civil servants from the
Ministry of Health and Human Services and those who wrote the report –
based on the evidence and research – and, more importantly, drew the
conclusions. The findings make for uncomfortable reading, not because
we have large swaths of people living in desperate poverty, but
because the ones that are in that position may well be there as a
direct result of certain government policies, in particular
immigration policies.

Denis Brown, one of the authors of the report, a lecturer at the UWI
and an expert in migration and development, said the people who come
to Cayman as migrant labourers, in particular Jamaicans and more
recently those from the Philippines, cannot be regarded merely as
units of labour and we must remember they are people with needs,
desires and responsibilities. They are people who have ambitions and
expectations and want, no less than Caymanians do, a better life for
their children.

Considering the combination of push and pull factors that bring so
many migrants to our shores and our own dependence on international
labour at both the top and bottom of our economic structure, Brown
warns that we need to take a long hard look at how we create a more
equitable environment for those we invite here. What Brown advocates
is a better appreciation of their needs and an understanding of why
people are forced to remit their earnings home when they can’t bring
their families here, and how without security of tenure they will cut
their lives to the bare bone and live in poverty because they don’t
see a choice.

Cayman is not unique in its dependence on foreign labour. It is,
however, unique in that the expatriate and immigrant working
populations exceed that of the local population, which creates
exaggerated concerns about being swamped by outsiders and a desire to
keep ‘foreigners’ out of the mainstream of society.

These fears have over the years created untenable positions for many
migrants. Before the rollover policy was introduced, many people lived
here, year after year, with absolutely no definable rights. The
introduction of more confirmed policies has both helped and hindered
the current situation. In some respects, people coming now know the
rules, but because the rules are relatively harsh regarding dependents
and the right to settle, we are creating a smash and grab attitude.

As workers cannot bring their families and because the likelihood of
settling and making a new life in Cayman is very limited for those at
the bottom of the economic heap, the rules encourage workers to save
and remit as much as possible to their respective nations. They will
see their suffering here as short term and their only possible way to
improve their future prospects and that of their children in sending
all their money home.

This means we may well see an increase of slum living as migrants
reduce their living situation to the minimum. The appearance already
of advertisements in the local classified columns for three-bedroom
homes that sleep twelve people will become increasingly more common as
landlords move totake advantage of the social phenomenon.

Managing migration is an important part of the evolution of a
civilised society. Referring to it as “enlightened self interest”,
Brown explained that you cannot disregard your migrant labour when you
have invited them into your community. These people are not illegal
immigrants or people trying to “pull a fast one” on the Cayman
community, they are human beings who are offering their services on a
free and open labour market, and unless we recognise their humanity,
Brown says we will be setting our society up for future trouble.

Demonising the foreigner does not protect Caymanian identity and, as
the story of the Good Samaritan tells us, the foreigner is not always
a stranger.

Chris Randall: Poverty is relative. A person (or
team) assessing poverty does so based upon their own perceptions and
experiences; thus pronouncements purporting to define
levels of poverty must be viewed with caution. This is particularly
true when considering the living conditions of migrant workers. 
What may appear to the western observer as appalling might, to the
people living there, be no different to their home situation in their
country of origin. This is not to say that anyone should be taken
advantage of, but it is important to realise that in many parts of the
world it is quite normal for whole families to live in one room,
sharing facilities with others and perhaps sleeping in shifts. 

The low level of pay for some occupations is to be deplored, and the
diligence with which workers from overseas save and send money home
must be greatly admired. There is, however, a fine economic
balance and if a given country finds that the remittances from it’s
expatriate workers upsets that balance vis-a-vis the
resident working population, restrictions will be imposed either on
actual travel or by means of exchange control.  This has happened
more than once already. Whatever we may think of the living
conditions our foreign workers are prepared to tolerate, we cannot
lose sight of the fact that there is a bigger picture.

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