The first statistics showing how the COVID-19 pandemic is affecting the Territory’s economy was revealed last week by Hon. Vincent Wheatley Minister for Natural Resources, Labour and Immigration. As part of the disclosure Hon. Wheatley declared on 3 May that 77 businesses downsized.
The Minister in an update on Labour and Workforce Development noted that many persons were either laid off or terminated from their place of work. “To date, approximately 77 Businesses have contacted the Department of Labour and Workforce Development,” Hon. Wheatley declared.
In getting to the crux of the matter the Minister for Labour and Immigrations stated, “Approximately 33 of these have reported closure, and approximately 683 have been reported laid off; some persons have been reassigned or reclassified as it relates to position and/or salary, and approximately 72 persons have been terminated throughout the Territory. Of the approximate 1300 employees reported as affected, 425 are BV Islanders/Belongers; 493 are Work Permit Holders; 80 are Work Permit Exempt; and over 330 of those persons are still being classified.”
He indicated that the majority of the affected were operating in the hospitality sector. “As you would imagine, like the rest of the world, the Tourism industry is the hardest hit at this time. With the tourism industry being one of our most important economic pillars which accounts for a large cross section of workers in the Territory, any loss in the industry is not only difficult for that sector, but for the economy in general.”
In the meantime, Hon. Wheatley implored the business community to make contact with Labour and Immigration to announce their downsizing etc to ensure that the Departments have an accurate pulse of the situation.
“As Minister responsible for Labour, I am aware of the economic burden the COVID-19 Pandemic has brought to our shores. However, I would like to appeal to businesses to submit your information to the Department of Labour and Workforce Development to assist with the accuracy of our assessements,” Hon. Wheatley said.
He also noted that government is trying to create a means to offer some form of support to affected businesses and persons. “Premier and Minister of Finance, Hon. Andrew A. Fahie, has previously stated that an Economic and Fiscal Taskforce has been set up and charged with developing a policy to guide the BVI’s COVID-19 stimulus initiatives, which would benefit businesses and employees. The Premier and Minister of Finance has already announced that Cabinet has approved the template of the economic stimulus plan. The details of stimulus plan will be made public very soon by the Premier,” he declared.
Hon. Wheatley in further pleading for businesses to share their status noted that the information will further educate government’s proposed stimulus plan. “In the interim, I want to remind business owners and employees that your ability to report your business and employment status to the Department of Labour & Workforce Development and the Immigration Department will assist the Government in making sure the stimulus plan takes you who have been affected into account. Such data is critical to our decision making as a Government. So we need you to be active participants in this process.”
In explaining that legislation will need to be amended to address the pandemic related issues the Minister said that Government is still being guided by the current laws of the land. “As Government continues to meet to make decisions that will benefit all persons residing in the BVI, we have recognised that the Labour Code, 2010 Section 104(3) and 107 speaks to – if an employee is laid off for more than three months without a date of re-employment, this person is entitled to severance pay if terminated. In times of disaster, and in this case a Pandemic, there should be legislation to address the specific national situation, which we realise is lacking at this time.”
One legislation change he said would be the area that deals with severance pay as he said that the realities make this a difficult matter for struggling businesses. “The great burden on businesses to identify the necessary funding for severance, and on employees to seek alternative employment where applicable, is evident. In light of this and in an effort to aid in the continuation of employment where practicable, especially for the tourism industry, before Cabinet right now, is a request for an amendment to the Labour Code 2010 to address an increase to the lay-off period,” Hon. Wheatley explained.
Small, medium and even large businesses are affected and pundits have indicated that there are genuine fears of foreclosures, bankruptcies and increase of crime. One of the commentators said: “The BVI was seeing the light at the end of the tunnel after the dreadful 2017 hurricanes only to be faced with the dire consequences of a pandemic in a small territory like the BVI. This situation creates uncertainty, instability, despondency and depression because of its socio-economic and health consequences: an emergency inside another emergency. After the 2017 hurricanes four persons were declared dead but during the ensuing months an additional 100 people died. The damage done to the economy including tourism industry and other crucial sectors will gradually become apparent to all.”