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St. Maarten minister De Weever wants locals first in job market


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

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