A heated discussion between an expatriate and a British Virgin Islander continues to dominate community conversation against the backdrop of a ban on work permit and exemption holders and the closure of a well known small business.
The disagreements were triggered by the announcement of a ban on the reentry of work permit and exemption holders to the Territory with immediate effect Sunday, 2 August. In explaining the new restriction the government stated: “Persons on work permit and work exemption holders will not be permitted to enter the British Virgin Islands at this time as the cautious and restricted opening of the Territory’s borders continues. At this time, the Government will continue to follow the protocol for the Controlled Re-entry of Nationals and Permanent Residents to the Virgin Islands during this COVID-19 Pandemic.”
The announcement spawned various online heated debates and viral blogging as expatriates announced that the temporary ban appeared unfair as it was across the board. The news has gone viral and has reached most Caribbean nations and as far as London and North America as well as a number of financial services jurisdictions. On the other hand, British Virgin Islanders announced that the decision was correct; and that work permit holders had a “privilege” not a right. The back and forth continued in the major forums for days and Leader of the Opposition Hon. Marlon Penn decried the divisive conversation.
Hon. Penn, in a statement issued on 8 August, described the decision by the government to issue the ban as “arbitrary”. The Leader of the Opposition stated, “The decision to arbitrarily ban work permit holders and work permit-exempt persons indefinitely seems like another knee jerk decision from this Administration, and speaks to the absence of a coherent plan to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic. A responsible Government, a planned Government, a transparent Government, would assess how many work permit holders or exempt persons are currently outside the Territory and their circumstances, and then make a policy decision. This decision lacks clarity, therefore, it creates uneasiness and uncertainty for families and the business community concerning its labour force.”
Furthermore, Hon. Penn stated that the government’s decision with such far-reaching implications should never be a blanket policy: “Such a decision requires consultation and probably should allow for discretion on a case-by-case basis, and in conjunction with local businesses. Has the Government considered that we have work permit holders and work exempt persons who are married to Virgin Islanders and are gainfully employed as the breadwinners for their households who may have been shut out of the Territory? Because of this policy decision, they are unable to provide for their families or meet their financial obligations (loans, rent, food and statutory obligations) causing additional hardship on family units and the overall economy.”
In relations to the financial services sector Hon. Penn said, “The impact is slightly different but has a far-reaching socioeconomic impact on the Virgin Islands. Several persons in the Financial Services Industry are high earners and instead of going through the hassle of re-entry, would just opt to not return to the Virgin Islands and work remotely. This would mean the loss of work permit fees, rent to landlords, and spending in the local economy (restaurants, bars, supermarkets and other local establishments), placing additional hardship on already struggling businesses. It could also mean a significant detraction from the strides we have made to have Financial Services companies.”
Premier and Minister for Finance Hon. Andrew Fahie in noting the ongoing discussions sought to give clarification on the situation during his statement to the Territory on 9 August. The Premier made two points about why the current policy to ban work permit residents was necessary.
He said, “Government has seen representation by a few persons who are calling for the immediate reopening of the borders. They are saying we can let visitors and persons that are not belongers in with testing and other protocols. But, I want to break this down for you. Firstly, there are no reliable rapid tests available to date. None! The only reliable tests are the lab tests, which are not instant. A person can go into a lab and not be confirmed as positive for COVID-19 up to the moment of taking the test. And the second they walk out of the lab, they can be exposed to someone who has the virus.”
Secondly, the Premier explained, “we are faced with the reality that the majority of people do want to bear the cost of quarantine. In addition, the misbehaviour of some individuals who were allowed to return – and not just in the BVI, but in many other countries – where they were refusing to self-isolate once they landed, means that measures became necessary to prevent arriving persons from going around and risking everyone else’s life.”
The borderline expatriate versus Virgin Islander conversation then took a further lift when locally made ice cream company Manjack Creamery announced via Facebook that it was closing its doors because the Immigration and Labour Department were dictating who it should hire.
The conversation continued following a posting from the company where it stated: “With a heavy heart we are forced to close ManJack Creamery. The Labour Commissioner, Ms Rymer wants to force this business to hire someone who is good for the country but not a good fit for our business. Before we are forced to lower our standards and add to the already poor customers service climate in our beloved British Virgin Islands we will respectfully close our doors.”
This announcement was not well received by many Virgin Islanders who announced in the forum that they felt belittled. The matter also saw a response from Minister for Labour and Immigration Hon. Vincent Wheatley who declared: “As the Minister responsible for Labour I cannot in good conscience let this float around without responding to it. The records show that he was sent about a dozen locals to fill that position, his attitude was that he would rather close than hire a local. If this is your attitude in this country at this time, good luck. I will not be threatened, blackmailed or held hostage for trying to help my people in this most difficult of times.”
Following the Minister’s declaration both Mr. and Mrs Hezzikiah Maddox sought to explain the predicament. Mr. Maddox in response to the Minister’s comment stated: “Minister Wheatley, I interviewed eighteen individuals that Labour sent. I hired three BVIander/Belongers. They did not work out. I used Facebook, put adds in the newspaper and I did all that Labour asked me to do. The person that we settled on is not a BVIlander/Belonger. She has been here in the BVI for nineteen years. Her work permit had been in Labour since March 2020. We are now in August 2020. Somehow labour knows what is best for my business. This is not about blackmail or held hostage, I don’t have that kind of power. You and your Commissioner do. I chose someone long before this Covid-19 issue. As I said in my post, Labour wants someone that is good for the country, I need some that is a good fit for my business. Somehow, your people got it in them craw that I don’t want to hire a local. I did, you don’t seem to want to acknowledge that. You run the country and I will run my business.”
As of the time of this article’s preparation, the matter was still being ventilated among persons in the community.