SINT MAARTEN (PHILIPSBURG) - The National Alliance (NA) remains concerned about the perceived high rate of unemployment as a result of Hurricanes Irma and Maria though the actual figures presented only reflect a total number of registered unemployed at 121 persons at the Labour department.
Also of grave concern is the shortage of labor inspectors, among other factors, based on information garnered at Wednesday’s Central Committee meeting with VSA Minister Emil Lee in which a policy on expediting work permits for foreign construction workers for reconstruction projects was presented to Parliament.
The reported low number of registered unemployed workers by the VSA Ministry seems inconsistent with the reported business closures especially in the hospitality and related sectors, and perception that large numbers of St. Maarteners are out of work.
Despite this, there is also the perception that not enough skilled labour is available on St. Maarten, leading to requests from at least one large project for a large amount of skilled workers to enter the labour market to expedite the rebuilding the process. Some seventy six foreign skilled construction workers reportedly have applied and been granted specially expedited work permits to work here on St. Maarten in the construction field.
NA agrees with the position that more skilled construction workers may be needed to jump start the recovery process in the aftermath of hurricane Irma, however Minister Lee confirmed that there were no reliable statistics confirming such; no local construction companies have registered as needing skilled workers and only one of the 121 persons registered as seeking employment at the Labour Dept has requested work in the construction field.
The Minister was also unable to answer right away as to the breakdown of what types of jobs are being sought, nor on how many persons are interested in following the planned courses in construction related areas to be offered at NIPA.
NA MPs also questioned the guarantees that workers will actually leave once permits expired, and what provisions government has made to ensure such. The shortage of inspectors also poses a problem in this regard, as well as collaboration with and manpower within the Justice Ministry to be able to follow up on these matters. MP Jacobs was pleased to hear that the workers would be registered, taxed and would have to live up to the other criteria of the work permit regulations including medical insurance, however reiterated that the Ministries involved should still get the pertinent back ground information and qualifications of the workers to have a good idea of the types of persons being allowed to live and work on our island.
Several other questions were raised such as: will local contractors benefit/qualify from expedited construction work permits? Should they register at the Labor office to have an account of workers needed? What is the actual inventory of companies on St. Maarten that actually need skilled workers, truck drivers and heavy equipment operators? What countries were contacted for the construction workers needed in St. Maarten? What challenges are faced in the process of sending workers out of the island after the work is complete?
MP Jacobs also asked questions concerning the students that went abroad to study construction, those currently studying in Trinidad, as well as those following course on island, and if they too were contracted to fill the needs of the island.
Questions as to when the students are expected back and whether there will be a system in place to facilitate them streaming into the local construction work force and thereby replace foreign construction workers as availability presents itself were also asked.
The NA Faction also has concerns about provisions made to house foreign workers and the effects of rising prices on the housing market. What affect would this have for locals who are still roofless and homeless on the island and seeking affordable housing on the island?
Who would have priority? The faction also questioned what the social economic impact will be on our society if indeed many more requests result in hundreds of construction workers flooding the island and the authorities being unable to properly regulate their return.
The National Alliance MPs feel strongly that there is a discrepancy in the number of actual unemployed persons and the figures of registered unemployed reported on in Wednesday’s Central Committee meeting concerning the current labour situation. While there may be a need for skilled construction workers for a few years after such a devastating storm, the logistics and social impact of persons coming in and not leaving the country is a serious undertaking not to be taken lightly.
Several statistical questions remain unanswered and unanswerable due to lack of data. As such the NA representatives in Parliament hereby highly recommend to those persons currently out of work to register at the labour department as soon as possible. Construction companies are also encouraged to register if they have a need for construction workers and to make use of the expedited policy being used for big projects as well. In this way, there can be proper planning to meet the needs of our unemployed as well as to fast track the rebuilding process seeing that we are already well into the 2018 hurricane season and many individual homes (accurate numbers also not yet made known) are still not able to be repaired as yet.