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Press Release

JCC Guest Column: Liberalization of Jamaican Labour Market by Ian Neita, JCC President PART 1

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The Jamaica Chamber of Commerce (JCC) is broadly supportive of current calls to liberalize the labour market to allow for employers to source skilled labour from overseas where their inability to source workers locally is limiting their ability to grow. It is clear though that such a policy must be accompanied by a laser-focussed drive to better align the nation’s education and training institutions with the current and projected requirements of the business community.  

In the process, the nation must engage in robust discussion among all stakeholders, while the debate itself must feature a candid self-assessment of where we are as a nation now and where we want to be in the years ahead.  

We can begin with the fact that more than a few Jamaican firms are proudly on record affirming that Jamaican workers, properly capacitated, are able to perform at world-class levels at the same time as quite a few Jamaican firms are also on record complaining that far too many persons are still entering the labour market with minimal preparedness for the realities of the workplace including deficiencies in basic competencies such as literacy and numeracy. The two realities, sadly, co-exist. 

This fact likely explains why a limited number of large firms and a few medium-sized firms have partnered with vocational and tertiary institutions to develop their own in-house “academies” where they have been able to build on the human resources emanating from the nation’s educational institutions with the goal of creating – primarily for their own operations – a pool of productive job-trained personnel. A number of those firms that have international operations have implemented practices such as rotating their personnel across their sites so as to enable them to derive diverse experiential benefits and empower them to become even more productive.  

However, such firms are few and far between. It would be unrealistic to expect that this will become the norm for the MSMEs that comprise the majority our firms. While on-the-job training is always a component of the productive workplace, it cannot replace the necessity for specific job-ready skills being available to firms as and when needed, and if our national educational framework does not facilitate such preparedness, then we are placing limitations on our scope for growth. In a situation where firms are appealing for a more liberal labour mobility policy to facilitate their current and projected investments, we should prioritize its consideration.  

We understand that this is a matter of concern for some operators and would-be investors in our tourism industry. At a time when the industry worldwide is slowly emerging from the worst impacts of the pandemic, Jamaica is fortunate that both our domestic operators and their foreign counterparts are not only moving full speed ahead in reviving their existing operations but are also being joined by others who had previously put their plans on hold and are now seeking to fast-track their ventures. While we can anticipate that many former employees in the sector who may have left during the pandemic-inspired downturn will return to the industry, it is also likely that significant numbers will have moved on to other callings. It is in this context, we understand, that some of the requests are being made for the flexibility to access the skilled labour pool outside of the country. 

Understandably, some concerns have been raised regarding the likely impact of such liberalization. What impact is it likely to have on the domestic labour market even in a context where overall unemployment rates have been trending downwards? The pragmatic use of a revamped work permit policy may provide built-in control. To be clear, it is difficult to assess the impact of our current work permit policy as information on its impact is not easily available. While we can track the numbers of approvals given, we don’t know, for instance, whether that data ever feeds into the educational and training institutions so that we can ensure that we are able to produce workers to meet future needs in those areas.  

Jamaicans also emigrate to take advantage of economic opportunities 

As the country debates this issue, it should also not be forgotten that multiple thousands of Jamaicans, over many decades, have themselves migrated for a range of reasons, but perhaps most significantly for economic and economic-adjacent reasons. Many descendants of Jamaicans who migrated in the 1940s and 1950s still maintain strong linkages with the country of their parents and grandparents, and today along with more recent emigrants as well as seasonal employees and performing artists and athletes, contribute to our economy in the form of remittances and as consumers of products and services emanating from this country. Indeed, in recent years, the inflow of remittances has often proved to be a larger source of our available foreign exchange than tourism or exports. 

More recently, Jamaicans have been taking up the opportunity to seize opportunities within CARICOM under the region’s skilled workers’ programme. Notwithstanding the issues limiting its widespread implementation within the region, the Jamaican workforce is realizing that this may be a valuable and viable path to their own individual economic growth.  

The truth is that Jamaica cannot realistically expect that the traffic will flow only in one direction. From the perspective of the JCC, this is only to be expected in a small, open economy with a limited consumer base at a point in world affairs when economies are becoming increasingly intertwined.