Wed | Dec 12, 2018

Foreign plumbers leak in - Locals cry foul as labour ministry allows overseas tradesmen to flood Jamaica

Published:Sunday | July 22, 2018 | 12:00 AMCarlene Davis
A group of volunteers doing some emergency plumbing work.
Minister of Labour Shahine Robinson making her contribution to the 2018-2019 Sectoral Debate last month.

The Ministry of Labour issued 18 work permits to plumbers from overseas last year, sparking concerns locally about the ease with which foreigners are being allowed to take jobs from Jamaicans.

Eighty electricians, 23 mechanics, and 30 welders were also among the 5,721 work permits issued by the ministry last year.

Past chairman of the Construction Industry Council, Gary Walters, was among those expressing surprise that Jamaica has been importing plumbers.

"That is a skill that we should have sufficient of," Walters told The Sunday Gleaner.

"This is an area where there is always opportunity for employment, all these housing and hotel developments, there is just never a shortage in terms of work for plumbers," added Walters.

He admitted that there is a shortage of highly skilled welders, and pointed to 2010 when a number of Jamaican welders found jobs overseas.

"The difficulty with welding is that the highly skilled ones globally tend to move around," said Walters.

He argued that what Jamaica should be doing is identifying where there is a shortage of a particular skill set and start training persons, so that over time, the need will be less to employ overseas persons in that area.

Walters, a civil engineer, said while he is not against workers coming from overseas, he is concerned that one of the requirements for local employers to import labour is that the vacancy must be advertised, and he is not seeing much of these advertisements from the Chinese contractors operating locally, who employ most of the plumbers, electricians, welders and mechanics who were granted work permits last year.

"The Ministry of Labour must ensure that the vacancies are advertised. A project that I was a part of, whenever they asked me to write a letter to the ministry to apply for the work permit, they would also attach the advertisement to put in the newspaper. But as I said, I haven't been seeing these ads and they should be done," said Walters.

President of the Incorporated Masterbuilders Association of Jamaica, Humphrey Taylor, also expressed surprise at the number of plumbers granted work permits.

Taylor said after doing some checks, he found that there is no shortage of plumbers locally.

According to Taylor, if the ministry means there is a shortage of registered plumbers, he could understand, but even then, the answer would be to register the plumbers we already have.

"The next line of thinking should be, we need to be training and certifying these people, we can't be bringing in people if we have them here. That cannot be right," said Taylor.

He charged that there are some Jamaican contractors who are out of work now despite the number of major projects going on across the island.

"If the locals are not being employed, we won't get any transfer of technology and our construction industry will just die out.

"We have been barking about this Chinese invasion for a long time, we know they have investments, and we can't match their type of investments, and it's way out of our league, but I still think we need to get a share of the pie," argued Taylor.

Taylor was supported by a senior manager of a company that places construction labourers, who told our news team that some persons are moving out of the industry because they cannot find jobs.

"When we attend meetings, we have so many plumbers and not enough plumbing jobs. What the Government is doing is taking these persons into the country and not using up what we have here, and when the Chinese do employ them, they pay them little or nothing, and if they complain they fire them," said the manager, who asked not to be named.

Efforts to get a comment from the labour minister were unsuccessful last week, but in her contribution to the 2018-2019 Sectoral Debate last month, Minister of Labour Shahine Robinson defended the issuing of work permits on her watch.

According to Robinson, there was no significant increases in work permits granted between 2014 and 2017.

"Between 2014 and 2016, there was an average of 4,600 work permits being granted. In 2017, a total of 5,721 work permits were granted. This figure represents new permits and renewals," Robinson told Parliament.

She argued that in 2017, the Alpart plant was reopened, while the construction of a liquid natural gas plant and the port expansion significantly impacted the overall numbers of permits issued.

According to Robinson, "Many of the permits issued were for short periods, ranging from three to six months.

"The signs of prosperity are all around - the projection is that there will be 15,000 new hotel rooms by 2021. With several projects well under way ... yet there has been no significant increases in the number of permits granted to these companies. In fact, the highest number of permits granted in the area of construction during the period was in 2015 when 1,127 permits were granted, compared to the periods average of 956," said Robinson.

"The reality is that the exchange of labour, skill, and knowledge is not going anywhere. Just as Jamaicans seek to go overseas and work, persons will seek to come to Jamaica. While we can't promise to never issue another work permit - we at the [ministry] are committed to ensuring that priority is given to Jamaicans within the local labour force," added Robinson.