10 SEPTEMBER 2013
DUTCH QUARTER–Putting locals ﬁ rst in the job market was one of the key highlights of the “State of the Labour Market” address by Labour Minister Cornelius de Weever at Monday’s well-attended “We Can Build St. Maarten Together” programme at the Dutch Quarter Community Center.
“By putting our people ﬁ rst, we can build St. Maarten together,” De Weever said, echoing sentiments expressed by Prime Minister Sarah Wescot-Williams at the ceremony witnessed by a cross section of the community. De Weever said when he took ofﬁce in 2011; St. Maarten was still feeling the effects of the global economic crisis. The overall unemployment rate at the time was 12.2 per cent and that of youth unemployment was 29.4 per cent. He said there were many complaints about young locals not being able to get jobs, while employers complained that the process to get an employment permit was like pulling teeth and took too long. This process has since improved “dramatically,” with a turnaround time of less than six weeks for employment permits.
The Minister said he recently visited Bonaire and looked at its one-stop shop for work permits and residence permits, which he intends to introduce in St. Maarten once efforts are synchronised and he gets the go-ahead from the Minister of Justice. “More importantly, the process has been directly tied to ensuring that local Dutch nationals get the ﬁrst opportunities for the jobs that are earmarked for foreign labour,” De Weever said.
He said the push in this direction will further be enhanced with the phased implementation of the counterpart programme as is stipulated in article 10 of the National Ordinance Foreign Labour. He noted that businesses and employers should take seriously his Ministry’s commitment to address unemployment, and the fair implementation of this article will prove this collective commitment as well. De Weever said the goal of his Ministry also includes the continuous evaluation of existing legislation, policies and procedures and an instruction to his departments to concentrate on eliminating all unnecessary bureaucracy without compromising on transparency and integrity.
“From the onset, I made it clear that the most important things for me are those that would directly beneﬁt the people I pledged to serve.” He touched on the “Employability Through Training” project, which he said has his full support as this initiative was designed to help youngsters gain the necessary social and other skill sets required to be employed. “I personally called on employers to participate in this programme and would like to thank those who actually did. It is important to note that key stakeholders from the business community are still lingering behind in showing their support,” he noted.
“The project will end, but the best practices will remain in place at the Department of Labour Affairs and the Department of Social Services. These departments have already been working along this new approach for the past 18 months, and the results from a Social Services and Labour Market aspect have been satisfactory.” De Weever said he was “challenged,” without any data to substantiate the demand, for not turning back the stipulation to grant persons between the ages of 16 and 24 an employment permit unless they have a college (HBO) degree or higher. “We cannot and should not import high school graduates when we have our own high school graduates,” he said. The importance of labour cannot be underestimated the Minister noted. Of St. Maarten’s NAf. 430-450 million budget, the largest annual income is NAf. 135 million from wage taxes from workers, while NAf. 120 million comes from Turnover Tax that workers also contribute a huge percentage to because they spend their money buying food and services from businesses. He also spoke of the recently introduced Labour Market Information System.
The data gathered from this system will serve as the basis to align policies and legislation with the reality that the people of St. Maarten face in their daily lives as it pertains to the labour market. “It is imperative that we take into consideration the impact of the French/Northern citizens who are employed on the Dutch/southern side because many times legislation, policies and procedures overlook this fact. “We also recognise that our people suffer because job placement agencies are unregulated, and for the most part, operate under the umbrella of an employment permit agency and short-term labour contracts continue to be used. I have stated before, and will continue to do so, without the collaborative effort by all, the poverty cycle of my people and the labour market situation will and cannot be adequately addressed.”
He challenged the Chamber of Commerce and St. Maarten Hospitality and Trade Association (SHTA) to be a partner and use their businesses and hotels during the offseason to train students to ensure a proper curriculum. The Chamber and SHTA should also be partners to ensure that schools are preparing students for the workforce at such a standard that the need for work permits will decrease. “Make properties and businesses available during the offseason to ensure that students have ‘real’ working experience that they can highlight in their resumes. To ensure that each student knows how to clean a room, make a bed, answer a phone and book a reservation, check in guests, be a bell captain instead of using security guards and provide service to our guests in our tourism industry,” he said.
“A dollar a day can take us very far when we put our money in the right places. Additionally, the value of owning your own business and therewith creating ﬁnancial independence is an aspect that needs to be highlighted to persons who are currently unemployed.” Despite what some people say, De Weever said, “my people are not tired, they are not lazy and they are not at home waiting for a hand-out. I recognise that my people want to work – they are anxiously awaiting the real opportunities to prove their willingness to work and contribute positively to building this country. But work and jobs without proper alignment to income is also a point that is worrisome to me. Income stagnation in our society is a phenomenon we must avoid, particularly for people who once saw blue collar work as their St. Maarten dream.”
“We need to move from a minimum wage to a living wage. The minimum wage was never designed to keep our people on it, and is now becoming a trend in our country, trapping my people in dead-end jobs.” De Weever said he recognises that people feel trapped earning a minimum wage. “There is a sense of hopelessness as they feel they no longer have a choice, but to take jobs that pay minimum wage or even below minimum wage. Employers and businesses know that most people have no choice or alternative, and they therefore take advantage of this. Workers are stuck in jobs that pay little and struggle to afford basic necessities, such as housing, food, clothing and school fees/ child care.”
In her presentation, Wescot-Williams stressed that it is only by working together that St. Maarten can be built. She questioned how a country like St. Maarten, which boasts of so much employment opportunities, has staggering unemployment. Monday’s programme also featured a captivating presentation by Ameera Groneveldt, who spoke about her determination to start her own company after being told that she was overqualiﬁed, and not being able to ﬁnd employment when she returned home as a single parent. A presentation was also made about the National Institute for Professional Advancement (NIPA), an overview of the Department of Labour Affairs and a presentation of the Dare to Dream Foundation (see related story).
Several departments of the Ministry of Public Health, Social Development and Labour were also on hand to provide information to visitors and also register unemployed persons.
Source: The Daily Herald, St. Maarten