Thousands of work permit holders, who would have had contributions paid on their behalf to the National Insurance Board (NIB), are not eligible for the unemployment benefit (UEB) program after being laid off as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak.
According to data from the Department of Immigration, this would impact 11,276 work permit holders that have been approved since January 1, 2019.
According to Pandora Butler, senior manager at NIB, when the unemployment benefit scheme was formulated it was universally linked to the Department of Labour’s (DOL) employment exchange section to help the unemployed find jobs.
“The primary purpose of the DOL’s employment exchange section is to help the unemployed find jobs. The primary role of the DOL in the UEB process is to shortlist for NIB those who are able, available and willing to work in the country. In order for DOL to help the unemployed find a job, the unemployed must first be legally able to work in the country. That is not an NIB rule, it’s a rule of the Department of Labour. According to the DOL, only Bahamian citizens and legal residents with a right to work can register,” she said in an emailed response to Guardian Business.
“So, then, if only Bahamian citizens and legal residents with the right to work can register with the Department of Labour, that means that people who do not have the right to work (i.e., they do not have a class of work permit that allows them to work anywhere and with anyone) in the country, will not be able to satisfy the Department of Labour’s conditions for registration.
“Labour, in keeping with the Department of Immigration’s rules, holds to the policy/law that states if a person has a permit to work only with one specific company, then when that permit expires or when that company no longer has work for him to do, he must be returned to his place of origin.”
Butler noted that the purpose of the benefit is not just to provide income replacement for the unemployed workers. While unemployed work permit holders are currently unable to earn a living or return to their countries of origin because of the closure of borders, NIB cannot operate outside of the law.
“When the UEB process was actuarially determined and subsequently signed into law back in 2009, no one in our social security program envisioned our current circumstances. In fact, eight weeks ago, no one at NIB, in the government or the country saw COVID-19 coming,” she said.
“And so, while for the majority of work permit holders these rules may be out of step with their current reality – i.e., they are not looking for jobs because they are only temporarily laid off – the rules are based in law and as such must be enforced.
“NIB does not have the authority to exclude the Department of Labour from the UEB process; changes in that regard can only come from legislative intervention. I am certain that the same can be said for the Department of Labour; both of us – NIB and Labour – administer our respective laws, we don’t make them.”
Director of Labour John Pinder said just over 12,000 recently laid off Bahamians had registered with the Department of Labour and another 5,000 applications were in the process of being processed.