The plight of the ‘guest worker’

| 25/07/2008

By Wendy Ledger – Posted Friday, 25 July 2008

The court room revelations this week that one employer has been
convicted for exploiting his expatriate workforce serves only to
remind us all that this is by no means an isolated incident. This
particular incident, where the employer charged his workers for both
their work permits and his own trade and business license, offers only
a glimpse at the type of exploitation that foreign workers at the
bottom of the labour pool suffer on a frequent basis.

The recent attempt by representatives of the Filipino community to
meet with senior immigration officials so they could take advice on
the rules and regulations governing the employment of foreign workers
and their rights under the law, were met with such alarming vitriol
and racist hatred that the leaders of that particular community
decided to withdraw their request for fearof severely disrupting
their collective peaceful lives here in Cayman.

Accusations on talk shows that the only rights ‘these people’ should
have are return tickets to their own country, that they are not to be
trusted , that they are manipulative and cunning and ‘different to us’
illustrated well the shameful xenophobia that exists in some quarters
in Cayman.  Albeit confined to a vocal minority, this underlying
but persistent and consistent disregard for foreigners ensures that
‘guest  workers’ remain schtum when it comes to the exploitation
that they suffer for fear of stirring up too much trouble.

The idea that you can come to Cayman but you must remain silent no
matter how badly you are treated, as it is simply bad form to say bad
things about your experiences, exerts a powerful influence and the
attitude that every foreigner should be grateful for the opportunity,
even if it is just to be exploited persists.

Although many, many Caymanians entirely disagree with these attitudes
and recognize that exploiting anyone, foreign or otherwise, undermines
society at large, too many employers take advantage of the fact that
there are few if any avenues of redress for the work-permit holders
that fill the positions at the bottom of the socio-economic pile.

From the failure of employers to provide adequate health cover to the
undeniably low wages that some expatriate workers receive,
exploitation is all too common. As noted by the Minister for Education
and Employment, Alden McLaughlin in Thursday’s CNS report, more often
than not even the legal loopholes that allow employers to deny
employees overtime pay effect work-permit holders more than most.

Even though the country’s economic success is dependent on overseas
labour, there are no advocacy groups and no organizations that will
stand up for the rights for those that are the most vulnerable.
Consistently, employers get away with abusing their foreign workers
because the rest of society simply turns a blind eye. It is utterly
reprehensible that any person would so willingly abuse another human
being – but it is even worse that the society at large is also
complicit in its silent acceptance of such treatment, to the point
where a whole race of people can be vilified so extensively just
because they asked what exactly were their rights.

In the global economy migration is a fact of life. Those who have
literally drawn the short straw in the nation game, who dare to get on
their proverbial bikes and seek a better life should not be abused
because they want a chance at economic inclusion. It was not so long
ago those who migrated to improve their lot were heralded as heroes,
now those who are willing to travel to find opportunity are
increasingly but inexplicably regarded as pariahs.

There are many things we can choose in our lives, but choosing where
we are born, and by extension the nationality we must carry, is not
one of them. The fact that we are condoning the exploitation of people
purely based on the fact that they were born elsewhere is
fundamentally wrong and more importantly inhumane. Populist xenophobic
sentiment should no longer be allowed to dominate the public discourse
in Cayman, it is time for us to embrace the global village and treat
our fellow man, no matter where he may hail from, with dignity.

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