Friday, September 18, 2020 - On Wednesday’s BVI Finance Breakfast Forum, Honourable Vincent O. Wheatley, MHA, Minister for Natural Resources, Labour and Immigration addressed the work permit, labour and immigration matters arising from the Government's Restricted Border Reopening Plan.
This forum was timely, as Phase 2 of the Government’s plan began on September 1. Phase 2 allows for the re-entry of work permit or work permit exemption holders, legal residents, students, public officers, dependents, and persons conducting business in the Territory.
Honourable Wheatley began discussions by thanking the industry stakeholders: “I want to reassure you that we appreciate you and all you are doing to keep the country afloat during this time. It is unprecedented, there is no playbook, we are all trying to figure it out as we go along...We fully appreciate the critical role that financial services play in a time like this.”
He also told stakeholders that the VI Government is working to address financial services matters now prior to Phase 3 of the Border Reopening Plan, which involves facilitating travel for tourism, adding, “We know we need to do a better job at facilitating financial services while we figure out Phase 3. We must give financial services all that it is due now, because you have been carrying the financial burden of the Territory.”
Honourable Wheatley also said he will make himself available to hear more from stakeholders to better understand the industry needs.
Good Standing Certificates for Work Permit Renewals On Hold
The Minister reiterated the Government's recent waiver of the good standing certificate from the Inland Revenue Department for work permit renewals due to what Honourable Wheatley referred to as “inefficiencies in the systems”.
He explained, “We want companies doing business, not caught up in Government’s bureaucracy.”
Efficient Processes and Streamlining
Minister Wheatley said that “expediting processes are very important to the industry” and spoke about the success of the Executive Work Permit, which can be processed in a few days in some cases.
While the online application process for work permits and removals was pushed back a few months, Honourable Wheatley assured stakeholders that once introduced, it will cut down the time drastically.
Regarding streamlining, the minister said the Government is working feverishly to establish one e-platform for some business-related departments over the next two years. He explained that the move towards e-Government is the reason Premier Fahie decided to place both the Departments of Immigration and Labour, the Social Security Board and National Health Insurance, under one ministerial portfolio.
“We [are working on having] one platform, one application, shared between all those departments. It will cut down on time and paper and be a more efficient, robust system. There’s no excuse for it - we can and must and will do better.”
Localisation of the Workforce
Discussion segued into the localisation of the industry workforce. To that end, Minister Wheatley emphasised the Government’s desire to see “a real effort towards localising staff as much as possible”.
The minister said he understands that in the case of specialty areas, it may take a few years to get it done, and is teaming up with the Minister of Education to address gaps, provide scholarships and training opportunities so that more persons can participate in the industry. He also alluded to a forum between himself and the Education Minister in localising the workforce, what needs to happen, when and how.
Honourable Wheatley said localisation is a “win-win”, adding, “The more localised you have your workforce, the more resilient the companies will be, the more viable they will be, the more sustainable the economy we can build together.”
The minister then made an appeal to stakeholders for an “honest, strategic partnership between the public and private sector”.
Accommodating Specialists and New Work Permit Applications
While noting financial services is a specialised field, Honourable Wheatley said there will be accommodations made for new work permits once companies cannot find local talent.
New work permits will only be considered if they are for specialised needs that cannot be satisfied by persons already in BVI, adding, “Unemployment is still a concern in the Territory and there are persons here who can be gainfully employed.” It is also important to note that new work permit applications must be submitted directly to the Minister for pre-approval and all new work applications are scrutinized against the database at the Labour Department.
The Labour Minister also said it is already understood that Phase III of the border reopening strategy will likely lead to a labour requirement increase, and hence, the need to have accommodations for professionals in the hospitality industry.
Regarding traveling specialists, Minister Wheatley said some are unwilling to do a 14-day quarantine in BVI, as their skills are in high demand and needed elsewhere. In response, the Government is considering the reduction of quarantine time and a revision of policies which may require persons to have a negative COVID-19 test prior to travel, and also upon arrival, which is also a consideration for Phase III.
Work Permit Exemptions and Work Permit Holders Working Outside of Territory
The Labour Minister said that work permit exemptions are currently on hold as they are “not a priority at the moment”, but those applications related to marriage will be accommodated.
In cases where employees are working remotely outside of BVI, work permits can be renewed once companies continue to pay contributions for social security and NHI.
Expired Work Permit Deadline December 31, 2020
Honourable Wheatley also highlighted the Government's recent announcement of the waiver which allows for work permit holders to visit the Department of Labour to submit and collect work permits without obtaining an extension from the Immigration Department. This ‘waiver of the issuance of extensions to entry permits’ until December 31, 2020 only applies to persons seeking renewals of work permits, and does not include persons who have received conditional permits.
Minister Wheatley wrapped up discussions by reiterating his commitment to working with financial services stakeholders, to ensure the industry remains viable.