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JIS News

On February 2, 2005, when we last met together like this, I greeted you with a great deal optimism and hope, in spite of some real challenges, which some might have even characterized as real and present danger.
Being a man given to optimistic realism, or realistic optimism whichever way you decide to spin it – it simply means that I have an abiding faith in the inevitably positive outcome when you combinemutually beneficial international partnerships with good, solid, old-fashioned hard work.
As a firm believer in the ILO-model of the tripartite organisation and administration of Labour – I am even more animated when I speak of a programme that embraces the collective will of over five thousandhardworking Caribbean citizens, making incredible sacrifices to take care of financial needs on the family front.
Indeed that pleasure is more profound when, on the other side of the collaborative coin we have enterprising employers – in this instance,drawn from our great neighbours to the North – the United States of America.
Of course, the picture is never complete without the technical skills of my Permanent Secretary, Mr Alvin McIntosh and his team here in Jamaica, Chief Liaison Officer Mrs. Barbara DaCosta and her team inWashington, and our CARICOM partners who complement our efforts through the Regional Labour Board.
This year, we are even happier to include another dimension, as I pause to extend a special welcome to Mr. John Meredith, Co-chairman of the H-2B* Workforce Coalition. [For those who are not au fait withthe jargon, H-2B refers to the overseas work programme in North American Hotels].
I am also happy to welcome Dr. James Holt, accomplished labour attorney, who no doubt made a vital contribution to the conference when he spoke this morning. I am pleased that we were able to attract both gentlemen to Jamaica at this time, given their direct, ‘on the ground’, hands-on experience with the programme. I am confident thattheir interventions will add tremendous value to our understanding of the core issues involved.
No doubt you will remember some degree of angst among us last year after the Government of the United States enforced a cap on the number of workers allowed into the U.S. under the H-2B programme.
The limit of 66-thousand workers was reached by the end of March 2004, and as early as January 3 last year…presenting a bleak prospect for about three thousand (3,000) workers Caribbean-wide.
John Meredith was a vital part of the lobby on Washington which worked with the United States government, culminating in a suspension of thecap for a couple of years, and the passage of the “Save our Small Business Act” by an overwhelming majority in both Congress and the House. John, we certainly look forward to hearing you assessmentlater, and of course to delve into the usual cut and thrust of frank discussions and debates about the way forward.
I must say though, that in spite of last year’s challenges of the cap, and the resulting late start to the “Summer Season” for H-2B workers, recruitment under the programme experienced only a 4.26% dip, moving from four thousand, two hundred and seventy two (4,272) in 2004 to four thousand and ninety (4,090) by the end of last year. In fact thetrickle through effect of what could have been a significant blow resulted in an overall drop of only 2.1% for all programmes, when compared to 2004. Of course the temporary uncertainty about the H-2Bcap was not the only issue which factored into the fortunes of the overseas work programmes last year, so the effect was even less than those figures suggest.
The hard work of Mrs. Barbara Da Costa and her team over the year in fact resulted in seven (7) new employers coming on board under the H-2A programme, while the H-2B was augmented by all of eighteen newemployers. Of this number, nine employers were re-entering the programme after the effects of the cap in 2004. An encouraging trend which I mentioned last year continued in 2005, and that is the numberof properties which are using both H-2A and H-2B workers.]
Let me get back to our workers for a moment, because they have certainly earned our respect over the past twelve months as, for the most part they continued to provide high quality service to their employers.
This has certainly enhanced the view of Jamaicans as an efficient and hard working people.
In more tangible terms, this productivity converted to the repatriation from the United States of just under seven hundred million Jamaican dollars* (US 10.8 M) during the year, representing approximately 20% of the gross earnings of Jamaicans on the overseaswork programme, thus contributing significantly to the local economy. [The exact figure is J $695,860,827.88]*
This value is of course compounded by the goods, services and cash that the workers might choose to transport home at the end of their assignments.
The year 2005 has already gone down in history as the most active hurricane season in recorded history, and we here in the Caribbean remember Katrina and Rita as if they passed over the southern regions of the United States only yesterday.
I wish to convey my sincere sympathy and solidarity with all the employers affected by these storms. I know that the rebuilding is far from over, and we stand ready to offer any assistance you deemappropriate to help in the continuing recovery.
On behalf of the Government and people of Jamaica, I would also like to convey our appreciation for the care and attention given to our workers and the tremendous effort made by our partnering employers whomade sure that the workers were evacuated to higher ground, and provided food and essential supplies. FLECS, a farmers cooperative, which is a subsidiary of Florida Fruit and Vegetable Company, securedsignificant concessions on freight for the workers, while the contact persons remained responsive to the liaison staff to ensure mitigation of the effects of the disaster.
Many H-2B employers assisted in transporting workers to transferred job sites and bus stations so they could travel to other areas for transferred employment. Others provided support in terms of food,advice and technical assistance at a moments notice.
I was moved by the live images of strength and courage that I witnessed first hand on my visit to the area. In spite of the enormity of the devastation, The resilience of our workers was evident as they bonded to make the best out of trying circumstances. So striking was this positive energy, that when some of them took up the offer to gettransport them home to their families, they were met at the airport by local media and warmly embraced by the entire country.
It is often said that a profession or programme which is not growing is dying, and of course, true growth comes from the ground up. This applies also to the recruitment and engagement of skills to sustainthe overseas work programmes. To this end, the Jamaica Central Labour Organization spearheaded a “Summer Employment” programme, facilitatingtemporary work assignments in Florida and Vermont for Jamaican and St. Lucian work and travel students.
A special 4-month J1 Programme with an intake of 80 students, saw 66 of them advancing to the next level of training, with credits accruing from post event evaluations conducted both in the U.S. and in theirrespective islands.
So colleagues and friends, I remain optimistic about the future of the work programme, and I am confident that our three-way partnership will continue to our mutual benefit. Of course we live in very interestingtimes – there are uncertainties surrounding the Immigration Bill, and always there will be the matter of Border Security. Both of these issues will directly or indirectly affect the H-2B cap, which willcome up for consideration again next year, as well as the Agriculture Reform Bill.
Whatever the future holds, I continue to have faith in the integrity and commitment of all partners in the programme, and I believe that with our sustained collaboration, the best is yet to come.