Meeting Review: “New Respect for the Colonel”

April 9, 2010

Scroll down for a quick review of the controversial meeting organised by Minister of Immigration Senator Colonel David Burch last night. The meeting was open to Bermudians who work in international business, and was to discuss term limits, which were introduced in 2001 and limit the amount of time an ordinary guest worker can remain to 6 years.

The meeting was held yesterday [Apr 8] at the Berkeley Institute, and kicked off late due to the large turnout. Senator Michael Dunkley, who had wished to attend ,but been excluded as he did not meet the criteria for working in international business, decided not to try and attend as he had stated he would, instead attending the Rise Above anti-gang meeting.

BDA Chairman and corporate lawyer Michael Fahy, had also been excluded with Colonel Burch saying “all he does is whine“, also decided that he would not attempt to attend the meeting, telling us he did not wish to contribute to a ‘circus’ atmosphere, instead allowing people to attend and have a constructive discussion.

Wristbands stamped “Approved by Minister” had been issued for those that had RSVP’ed to the meeting. There were hundreds of people in attendance, and we understand some were not able to gain entry.
term limit meeting

One attendee emailed us their perspective:

The meeting went well. I have a huge amount of respect for the Colonel now.

It started with him explaining the policy and how it is applied. I guess the long and short of it is whilst the term limits are in place, he understands the need for international business and believes that his Ministry is fair when it comes to issuing the necessary extensions. Nobody in the room argued any different.

What was repeated over and over was the perception of non-Bermudian workers that they were not wanted. And that not the Colonel, but others in Government especially during the election, did not do us any justice by using division tactics.

He said the job was all of ours to make that perception different and he does his part by meeting with heads of companies etc.

There will be other meetings for those who are indirectly impacted by international business at a later date.

There were around 400 people in the room.

He was thanked over and over for arranging the meeting and I think most left there with a new respect for him.

Excerpts of Minister Burch’s speech:

We are all here in this room because one of you called my office and suggested to my aide that I had met with everybody in your industry but you. So rather than being divisive, I said they are absolutely correct, and I will fix it.

So here we are, with much fanfare about what this is all about, defined by people who don’t know me, people with their own agendas, people who are not really interested in progress or in facts.

So, let me tell you why we are here and what I hope to accomplish from this exchange. I will set out some historical background on the policy, the need for it, the application of it, and where we are today.

I expect that will clear up some of the confusion or misinformation but I also expect that you will wish to share with me your own views on the policy and your experiences of your industry.

And just to place in proper context — I was not born a Colonel or a Minister or a Parliamentarian. I spent 20 years in your industry as an underwriting manager, so you won’t have to explain to me what a captive insurance company, a reinsurance contract or actuarial analysis is. I understand those terms.

I would like firstly to assure you that I, as the Minister responsible for Immigration, would do nothing that would threaten the health of Bermuda’s economy. But I am painfully aware that perceptions can be as damaging as reality, and it is my duty to ensure that I provide you with the information that will dispel any misinformation. It is indeed critical to calm concerns while we are now operating in a global environment affected by an economic downturn.

I would, however, be remiss if I do not remind you why this policy was first introduced. Most mistakenly believe that the policy was introduced to make more jobs available for Bermudians. While I am charged with ensuring that Bermudians at all levels are given the opportunity to reach their highest potential, this is not the underlying principle of this policy.

The term limit policy was introduced to keep a promise to Bermudians. While this Government made the unprecedented decision to give permanent residence, and in some cases Bermudian status, to persons who had resided permanently in Bermuda since August 1 1989 at the same time, we made a commitment to Bermudians that we would not continue to approve work permits indefinitely for non Bermudian employees thereby creating further groups of long term residents who would claim to have an expectation that they could ultimately acquire permanent residence in this country.

Many have argued that the term limit policy is flawed because non Bermudians should no longer have such an expectation. However, I must remind you that this was also true in 1994 when the ability to qualify for discretionary status was repealed. This fact did not prevent the hue and cry of long term residents who claimed, even before the first PLP Government was elected in 1998, that because their work permits were simply rolled over from year to year, they should be granted more long-term security. We simply cannot allow this situation to be repeated.

I have heard the concerns that the term limit policy has been applied inconsistently especially since I became the Minister responsible for Immigration. I want to assure you that nothing could be further from the truth. I have taken great pains to ensure that we are dealing with applications in the same categories within each industry consistently.

I have ensured that once I have made a decision about a job category, then the rationale is applied to all jobs in the same category and industry. However, sometimes, I have to review applications on an individual basis where I believe that a specific employer may need additional time to replace the relevant work permit holder or that employer finds himself or herself in a situation where it is critical to have a specific employee complete a certain project. I would hope that Bermudians view this not as inconsistency but as flexibility which is available to any employer who can make a cogent case as to why he or she requires additional time.

There are other concerns that, unfortunately, are due more to a misunderstanding of the policy rather than the mistaken belief that the policy somehow changed. I would like to clarify some of these misconceptions.

Many employers have adopted the position that if the person’s job category appears on the shortage or key category list, then those work permit holders in that category are automatically granted an exemption from term limits. This is simply not true and was not true when my immediate predecessor, the Hon. Derrick Burgess, was the Minister of Labour and Immigration.

In order to qualify for an exemption from term limits, employees must submit a justification as to why an employee should be considered key. If the employer makes a convincing case that the person is key to the organisation, and the job category appears on the shortage or key person list, then the employee may be granted a waiver from term limits. However, I have frequently found that a job category which may be key to one employer is considered by another employer to be subject to term limits.

One example of this is the case of accountants. I have reviewed applications submitted for chartered accountants to be exempt from term limits where those accountants are newly qualified with only minimal post-qualification experience. Most employers would not consider making such an application as the accountant is only just gaining valuable experience on the job.

In those cases, I have approved an extension for three additional years to give them a total of nine years. This decision will not preclude an employer making a case before the end of that accountant’s term limit extension that he or she has now acquired enough valuable experience to be eligible for a waiver. However, I find it difficult to believe, particularly in an organisation that has a number of more senior accountants, that such a person in the early stages of his or her career could be key to the organisation. I have consulted with a number of persons in the business community who concur with that view.

There is also a belief that a person granted a waiver or extension at one company will continue to have the designation if they move to another job. This again is untrue. A waiver from term limits or an extension to term limits is issued to the specific employer who applied for it. If a work permit holder leaves that company, then he or she once again becomes subject to term limits. If his or her new job is in one of the categories eligible for a waiver or extension, then the new employer must apply for such a waiver or extension when submitting an initial application for that person.

I have received complaints from a number of Bermudians who have applied for a position which is currently held by a person who has been granted a waiver from term limits. They have been told by the employer that they will not be interviewed for the position because the work permit has been granted an exemption from term limits.

Alternatively, my staff has received calls from employers who believe that, because the work permit holder has been granted a waiver from term limits, the employer no longer has to advertise the position.

Employers are reminded that the normal work permit policies and procedures will continue to apply when renewing applications for persons who have been granted a waiver or extension. The employer will continue to be required to advertise the position and where there are qualified Bermudians to fill that job, they must be hired. A waiver or an extension is only granted subject to there being no Bermudian qualified to fill that position.

Lastly, it should be remembered that this policy was only implemented in April 2001 so that its effects have only been felt since April 2007. A number of concessions were made because of the tremendous backlog created by employers who waited until their employees’ term limit had expired before applying for waivers from, and extension to term limits.

In particular, a year’s extension was given to employers who had work permit holders whose term limits expired between April 1 2007 and September 30 2007. Even after September, a number of employers were given an additional year to find replacement staff. Now that we no longer have a backlog of applications, such concessions are no longer required.

I must emphasise that I have not amended the policy, nor have I amended the categories identified in the list published on the website. I recognise that business must have continuity and stability. Therefore I have continued to grant waivers to persons who are, one, in senior management and two, are in the categories that have been identified.

We have kept statistics of the number of waivers and extensions granted, and those statistics support the fact that for identified job categories, either exemptions from or exemptions to term limits have been granted.

However, I have to balance these approvals with ensuring that Bermudians at all levels are given the opportunity to reach their highest potential and that glass ceilings are not created by the granted of waivers from term limits.

One area where we continue to receive a number of complaints is that there is a dearth of entry level positions created for young Bermudians leaving high school and university. I am cognisant of the challenges with the standard of education in Bermuda. However, there continues to be a number of young Bermudians who graduate from accredited universities, some with double majors, who have trouble finding entry level positions when they return to Bermuda.

We have to ensure that while we continue to cultivate an environment where businesses feel welcome and can continue to be profitable, we have also to ensure that Bermudians are benefiting from our economy. The last thing that either the Government or the business community want to be responsible for is the creation of a perception that there are two Bermudas: one that is wealthy and mainly non-Bermudian; and the other which is poor and struggling and mainly Bermudian. We must work together to contribute to an economy so eloquently described by the Minister of Finance, the Hon. Paula Cox, as being where ‘the have-nots have, and the haves have more.’

This cannot be done by Government alone. The public service cannot provide jobs for all entry-level positions, nor would that be a viable economic solution. Your members must contribute by ensuring that such opportunities are made available to suitably qualified young Bermudians. There are a number of companies that have already been demonstrating their commitment to Bermudians, and for those companies, in most cases, they have been granted the waivers from or extensions to term limits for which they have applied. However, for others, my position is stated below.

In cases where I have not been provided with evidence that a company is, one, providing entry-level positions to young Bermudians, two, providing equal payment and benefits to both Bermudians and non-Bermudians, three demonstrating that it has programmes in place for developing Bermudians, then I have granted three-year extensions rather than waivers from term limits even though, the position may, on the face of it, be eligible for a waiver. If a company provides evidence that they are meeting all three criteria, then I will grant waivers to those work permit holders that are in the identified categories, regardless of their seniority. I will also consider applications for waivers from term limits for those eligible cases where I have initially only granted an extension of three years.

Some call it protectionist. And I say what is wrong with protecting your citizens?

As a member of the Bermuda Government it is my duty and responsibility to protect Bermudians first. I make no apology for doing so. I cannot think of any other country that makes such an apology for protecting their citizens first. Nowhere else in the world do you find a country or its leadership apologising for protecting its citizens first.

The Bermuda Government will be led by the Progressive Labour Party for the next six months (at least.) I am not sure if I am going to be Minister for that period, but while I am the Minister you can rest assured I will listen. Those of you who have met with me previously will also know that I can talk.

As we engage in this dialogue there are going to be times that you feel that you aren’t getting your way, and there are going to be times that I am going to feel I am not getting my way, and there are going to be times that we’ll have to compromise. But at all times I will do what I feel is the right thing to do for Bermuda and Bermudians.

Finally, I would like to give you assurances that our responsibility is to protect the rights of Bermudians, no matter their colour, no matter their political affiliation, no matter their station in life.

Our one concern is that suitably qualified Bermudians achieve their full potential in all sectors of our economy. In this climate I am determined to strike the correct balance between the needs of business and the aspirations of Bermudians. That is not anti anything, but pro-Bermuda and its people. I hope I have explained fully the policy and I look forward to your contributions to this exchange.

You can also read a review here on 21square, and read the live tweets from the meeting from 21square here.

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