Free Movement of Labour – Green light
On the morning of December 5, 2018, citizens of the CARICOM (Caribbean Community) Single Market and Economy (CSME) participating Member States woke up to a new, impending reality. Just hours earlier, several of their respective leaders signed the St Ann’s Declaration on the CSME. This Declaration heralds three positive realities. Firstly, it declares that willing member states would move towards full free movement by 2021. Secondly, it allows for the expansion of CARICOM Skilled National Categories; and thirdly, it declared that CARICOM skills Certificates would be recognized by all Member States.
Full free movement of labour (FML) may be interpreted as the ability to move, work and reside in any of the CSME participating member states without the need for a work permit. It also implies that there will be no discrimination on the basis of nationality when applying for a job in another member state. This FML regime is a critical economic tool to increase regional efficiency and truly benefit from economic integration.
This is a positive step for the region. Previously, regional leaders might have been influenced by the works of Thomas and Brewster, who have argued that due to the small and vulnerable state of our economies, FML ‘on a mass scale was neither politically feasible nor desirable.’ Thus, the gradualist approach to implementing the FML, as reflected in the 1996 Conference of Heads of Government (Conference) decision, was maintained. Consequently, the region was saddled with an FML regime that was characterized by caution. This caution was thrown to the wind in 2007 when regional leaders agreed to an ambitious Implementation Schedule that called for Associate Degree and equivalent holders to move by 2007; holders of Caribbean Examination Council (CXC) ‘O’ Level and equivalents to move by 2008; and finally, all CARICOM nationals to move freely by 2009.
Regional optimism was quickly thwarted in 2008 following the Conference decision to halt the implementation of additional categories of skilled nationals as per the Implementation Schedule. The CARICOM Secretary General stated in a session at the University of the West Indies that “CARICOM Heads advised the Secretariat to focus on consolidating what has been done rather than pushing forward…” (2011).
Free Movement of Labour – Amber light
The St Ann’s Declaration resets the FML on an ambitious path towards full integration by 2021. The reader must carefully note that although FML may be a reality by 2021, this time, it will only be for those willing CSME participating Member States. Thus, by January 2022, the region may see a handful of citizens from 5, 7, 10 or all CSME Participating States. The time is now for our citizenry to ensure that our voices are heard and demand that our national leadership places the region at the center of their national development. We must stand up and be counted as ready for the full FML by 2021.
To our teenage readers, your adulthood looks more promising as you would be able to move, seek employment, work and reside anywhere within the willing CSME Participating Member States. As a young university undergraduate, I was once told that I would only be eligible for FML upon graduation and after applying for the very stringent CARICOM Skills Certificate. I took one look at the application process for the Skills Certificate and instantly, I felt dejected by my region. The application called for multiple police certificates of character, originals of my degree certificates and a processing fee. My despondence increased when I learned that not all member states automatically accept the skills certificate. I would be required to submit myself and my qualifications to security-level scrutiny before being allowed to work in another CARICOM Member State. Several of my regional friends were simply told that their Skills Certificate will not be accepted and they must apply for a new one. The region failed us.
Free Movement of Labour – Red light
The freedom to be able to travel uninhibited throughout the Caribbean region has long been seen as a benchmark to the region’s integration movement, from the days of the British West Indies Federation to the current CSME. Although Article 46 of the Revised Treaty of Chaguaramas (RTC) allows for hassle-free travel for the bearers of CARICOM Passports, CARICOM Nationals continue to experience cases of restricted movement within the region. There have been instances of difficulties receiving indefinite stays, the six-month stay as a CARICOM National or the refusal to accept one skills certificate by border security officials. The regional leadership must seek to solve these seemingly insurmountable, bureaucratic challenges.
After St. Ann’s, the categories of eligible CARICOM Skilled Nationals (CSNs) now include security personnel, beauticians, barbers and agricultural workers. But with unemployment fuelling economic and societal turbulence across our region, the region’s leaders should seek to first ascertain the occupational categories of the large groups of unemployed and under-employed regionally. Then, and only then, should they expand the categories of CSNs to include at least the majority of the unemployed and under-employed.
For example, Barbados has a large number of retrenched, clerical civil servants who are holders of CXC O’Level certificates. Thus, it is hoped that in the near future, the regional leadership would see it fit to include secretaries, stenographer clerks, administrative assistants and other key clerical, sales and services occupations as CSNs. This would equip them with the opportunity to seek employment within the region.
Free Movement of Labour modifications
Several Caribbean islands with limited land space, job opportunities and markets require more than market access but accompanying administrative policies and legislative provisions to overcome these challenges. These need to be borne in mind with a clear understanding of the countries’ national capacity. Let us hope that in 3 years, the entire Conference would be willing and capable of implementing the full, free movement of CARICOM Nationals with the requisite security infrastructure to ensure that the CSME is completed. This infrastructure must include a single economic and domestic transport space with fully trained and Caribbean-oriented border security officials.
Dr Kai-Ann Skeete is Trade Research Fellow at the University of the West Indies, Cave Hill’s Shridath Ramphal Centre for International Trade Law, Policy & Services.