“After five years leave and never come back,” Minister for Labour and Immigration Hon. Vincent Wheatley declared as he announced the government’s plans to “localize” the workforce by ensuring that most ex-pat jobs are replaced by Virgin Islanders. The Minister announced that if businesses refuse to cooperate in this venture government would be forced to implement term limit on work permits.
In making the serious assertion, Hon. Wheatley said that he is dedicated to the overhauling of the Territory’s workforce and noted that if businesses don’t wish to cooperate government has plans: “If there is too much resistance then we would be forced to do what places like Cayman do and say after five years pack up and leave and never come back.”
The Minister’s comments follow weeks of heated conversations between ex-pats and locals with some sections of the community accusingly claiming that the government is systematically trying to limit the number of work permit holders in the Territory. These speculations were finally put to rest when Minister Wheatley admitted that the government intends to have a Virgin Islanders driven workforce.
Hon. Wheatley while speaking on the ‘Honestly Speaking With Claude Skelton Cline’ programme on 18 August admitted that the work permit term limit option is an extreme way of handling the situation and he stated that he does not want to start there. However, Hon. Wheatley said that the Government is prepared to force businesses to change their workforce if necessary: “Our intention is to have more locals in the workforce than outsiders. Let’s move in that direction. If it is going too slow you’re going to force us to get draconian and say you know what if you don’t want to move we’re going to force you to move by limiting your work permits. I don’t want to go there, that is not a good place to start because we know we must have outside talent.”
While explaining the driving force of this approach Hon. Wheatley announced that his Ministry is concerned that there are more work permit holders in the workforce than there are employed Virgin Islanders.
“You have to understand what the philosophy is around that in any part of the world whenever there is devastation. Every country will first have to look after its people. You have to look out after your people and that is the underlining philosophy. The other part of it in terms of where the workforce is concerned you want to, as a government, localize our workforce more,” he commented.
The Minister further explained, “it is a more sustainable way to go about it than the way we have been going about it in the past. I think it took the hurricanes of 2017 and COVID to bring that point home to us that we should not continue on the path we were. Where the workforce was kind of skewed when it comes to local talents versus is not sustainable and our studies show that that pattern from past records is never sustainable. “
“When you have a local population unemployed and you have the outside persons, so to speak, happily going to work collecting checks and doing things…it always ends bad…We are trying to avoid that situation,” he added.
Changing the Present Scenario
Hon. Wheatley said that the government is trying to create a situation that is “better balanced.” However, he admitted that this task will take some time: “It’s not an overnight fix, but we have to start someplace.”
The recent workforce figures stood at 10,698; and of that figure, it was stated that 6,186 of the Territory workers are expatriates holding work permits. However, the Minister disputed the claim that the BVI was heavily reliant on ex-pat workers. “It is not necessarily reliant, it has a lot of ex-pat workers. Are you going to assume that the persons who are here can’t do some of these jobs.”
The Minister further emphasized that the fact that the Territory’s ex-pat workforce is 66 percent of the overall number of eligible workers is not an indication that there are no local workers capable of filling the mold should the number of ex-pats decrease: “You cannot tell me that all those persons on work permits are doing jobs that no BV Islander is qualified to do. You cannot tell me that.”
“We expect companies to hire more local persons than they would bring in outside persons. For one it is cheaper for them at the higher levels…We expect that to happen but is it happening? I can tell you it is not happening at the levels and percentages that I am happy with. That’s why between myself and the Minister of Education we are taking several initiatives. One of them is how we are going to localize the workforce. We’re putting on a forum very soon we’re going to be discussing that issue in great detail”.
He said that 30 students will be going away on scholarship and they are going to be doing a workforce needs assessment… We cannot just talk about this anymore…It’s time to stop talking and start doing.”
Some Efforts To Commence Immediately
While Hon. Wheatley said that he is hoping to see some of the drastic immigration changes in place by the end of this year. He did note that some efforts will take immediate effect.
In explaining this, the Minister said: “Unemployed persons are registered with the department. We have a database of those persons who are seeking employment. “If you look at phase two entry it tells you two weeks in advance before you come there are two weeks. Those two weeks are so we can go and check the database to see if there is anyone locally here who can do the job that you want them to come in and do. If there is someone local to do that job we have to ask you – tell you sorry. At this point in time, we don’t need your expertise here; we have somebody current in our database who can do this job.”
The Minister also admitted that there is currently a Task Force that comprises of 21 immigration officers, Police and Customs currently doing sweeps of certain ex-pats. “The Task Force is there and they are going to be there until the seaports open. I don’t think they are discriminating who are here illegally. Whether you are male, female, or in between.”
Hon. Wheatley announced, “I am not sure what the ratio is right now but we are moving towards a higher ratio of locals and Belongers in the workforce.” The Minister said it was to see a switch in the figures where there is 70 percent locals and 30 percent ex-pats in the workforce.
He said that he is inviting businesses to make this shift as a priority.