Immigration policy has long been intertwined with Bermuda's political discourse. In its current form, the issue of term limits has taken centre stage with strongly held views coming from multiple sides. While the development and implementation of the six year term limit policy in 2001 was in response to a specific set of concerns, now is a good time to revisit and assess if its current form is best suited to Bermuda today.
Government introduced term limits to discourage the expectation that work permit approval was effectively the same as permanent residency rights. The rationale is that at the time there were 12,000 work permit holders and their dependents, and over any five year period 6,000 of them would still reside on the island after five years.
With such renewals, government felt there would be a legitimate expectation of permanent residency status. But no government, anywhere, would likely grant or be allowed to grant permanent residency in one fell swoop to a group of people who comprise more than ten percent of the local population.
Employers have criticised this policy because they argue some of their best talent is lost; further, many have called for employees to simply sign a waiver saying they accept they have no legitimate claim to permanent residency. Because most employers only care about their employment needs they are silent on the issue of what happens to that long serving employee, who having given some of her most productive years to that company and Bermuda, has no security of tenure in her later years.
This is precisely the issue with those workers who came to the island after 1989 the year Bermuda status grants were abolished and have had permits renewed simply on application.
A number of discussions have taken place between government and the Association of Bermuda Insurers and Reinsurers (ABIR) and the Bermuda First group and it appears there is movement toward some common, even if not completely satisfactory ground on term limits. The goal is to find the right balance between creating and sustaining an attractive business environment, the long term interests of Bermuda and Bermudians and fair treatment of our guest workers.
Political posturing and anonymous invective do not help. The issues are complex and intertwined and do not lend themselves to simplistic solutions. The OBA has seemingly offered such a solution: “End term limits for job categories that normally get 90 percent waivers” says Shadow Finance Minister Mr Bob Richards.
This alone completely side steps the reason for term limits being introduced in the first place. What does the OBA propose to do with the work permit holder after he has worked for ten years? Grant PRC, status, or allow them to continue without security of tenure? If the decision is to grant PRC or status, how many people are we talking about on an annual basis? And what are the infrastructure implications? We should recall that one of the reasons why the Department of Immigration sought to limit the number of work permit holders with children (as insensitive as it sounds) was because there were limited places in schools for children.
Term limit policy has to be discussed in tandem with the rights and privileges of long term residents. As these discussions continue we should be mindful not to inject a class bias into the formulation of policy; one that gives the wealthy and powerful guest worker disproportionate benefits in contrast to those granted to the weak and poor. This is where government has to speak for those who have no voice, those silenced by intimidation. The contribution of the unskilled or less skilled guest worker is also vital for our economy.
Introducing the term limit policy has been one of the most controversial polices of this government and its implementation was designed to address a potent political problem. Ten years later it is important to re-assess and determine how the policy can be modified while taking into consideration multiple factors. The key here is balance.