In a rare show of unity, the governing and opposition parties in the Guyana legislature have demonstrated an outstanding and continuing commitment to the 15-nation Caribbean Community (CARICOM).
Despite their differences over domestic matters, the parties in the legislature unanimously agreed an amendment to the Caribbean Community Free Entry of Skilled Nationals Act to allow for the spouse of a skilled national to work.
This provision is ground-breaking within the CARICOM grouping. No other member-country has taken the step to allow spouses of skilled nationals to work. The effect of this neglect has been that families have been separated or skilled spouses have been deprived of productive times in their lives.
Additionally, receiving CARICOM countries have denied themselves further skills that could contribute to their national development.
The Bahamas and Montserrat – while members of the Caribbean Community – have opted not to be part of the Single Market where movement of skilled nationals is relevant. Of the other countries that have agreed to participate in a Single Market (for the time being Haiti is participating in goods only) 12 of them have operationalised the legal requirements for free movement of only 5 of the 10 agreed categories of skilled workers. The majority of them have not granted free movement to the remaining five.
The Guyana amendment to allow spouses to work and move freely was adopted by its legislature on February 27 and President Donald Ramotar is expected to sign it into law before the end of March.
Guyana’s Foreign Minister, Carolyn Rodrigues-Birkett, explained that no restrictions would be placed on the spouse and dependants of the principal beneficiary. Effectively, this means that a spouse will not require a work permit once the certificate of the skills bearer is verified.
By the amendment, the Guyana legislature also provided for a CARICOM skilled national to apply directly to the Minister for certificate verification. Once the certificate is verified, the holder can apply to the Chief Immigration Officer to remain in Guyana “for a period of indefinite duration”.
In a telling statement to the legislature, the Guyana Foreign Minister declared: “Notwithstanding the challenges we encounter from time to time, the Government of Guyana remains committed to the ideals of regionalism and its fundamental principles”.
Indeed, by making the amendment to the law, Guyana has done no more than fulfil its obligation under the Revised CARICOM Treaty. What is significant is that an identical obligation exists for all CARICOM member-states, but none of the others have yet implemented it.
By the action of its legislature, Guyana will reap the benefit of two-for-one with every bearer of a skills certificate and their spouse. The country will be infused with a greater number and variety of skills to bolster its trained working population.
Pointing to the fact that Guyana is opening up its vast interior for large scale mining of gold and diamonds in addition to its traditional production of bauxite and manganese, Foreign Minister Rodrigues-Birkett told parliament: “We welcome our brothers and sisters from the Caribbean with open arms. Today we are putting some additional legal mechanisms in place to ensure that their stay in Guyana will be worthwhile and enjoyable”. She might well have added that Guyana will benefit from the influx of skills.
In this sense, the purposes of Articles 45 and 46 of the Revised CARICOM Treaty, which set out the goal of free movement of people within the regional group of countries, are being met in letter and spirit by the actions of the Guyana legislature – skilled workers with spouses are no longer restricted within their national borders. They can now add the vast space of Guyana as an opportunity for employment for themselves and their spouses.
The opportunities in Guyana are not limited only to the mining sector, which itself will expand enormously once the present explorations of the known and proven deposits of oil and gas produce results, but also to mega-agricultural farms.
At the recently-held 25th CARICOM Heads of Government meeting in St Vincent and the Grenadines, President Ramotar repeated that Guyana has 3.5 million hectares of available agricultural land, some of which he offered to CARICOM governments and entrepreneurs for growing food for consumption within the region and globally.
The President had good grounds on which to make his offer to CARICOM countries. Presently, CARICOM countries import more than US$3 billion in food from outside the region. He rightly regards that as US$3 billion worth of business opportunities that would create hundreds of jobs and generate millions in income.
The opening in Guyana has already been seized by the Simpson Family (owners of the Sol Group) from Barbados who are cultivating rice, soya, corn, fruits and vegetables on almost 30,000 acres of land at Santa Fe in Guyana’s Rupununi district. Some of the production is being sold to nearby Brazil.
Clearly, Guyana recognises the benefits of production integration for the CARICOM region – matching capital and business know-how from one country with the natural resources of another to advance the interests of all.
It is noteworthy that the Commission on the Economy, established last September by CARICOM Heads of Government to advise on solutions that would lead to growth and development, has said that “sustainable development can only be achieved through the free movement of people and goods”.
The Heads of Government have collectively stated that the Commission will prepare “an implementation timetable” to be presented at the July 2014 CARICOM Summit.
It would be encouraging to skilled CARICOM nationals – and for CARICOM integration – if, by then, all governments took the practical and measurably beneficial action of operationalising free movement of the remaining 5 categories of skilled nationals as agreed four years ago, as well as giving their spouses the right to work. Guyana’s political parties have together shown the way.
(Sir Ronald Sanders is a Consultant, Senior Fellow at London University and former Caribbean diplomat)