Islands' pact lets more workers follow jobs
Caribbean Single Market helping unify region
By ADAM RANEY, Associated Press
Posted Thursday, August 17, 2006
PORT-OF-SPAIN, Trinidad -- With construction stagnant in her native Jamaica, architect Mandilee Newton left one island for another -- taking a design job in oil- and gas-rich Trinidad.

By finding a position across the Caribbean, the bespectacled Newton, 27, said she managed to boost her career without migrating to Europe or North America like so many skilled workers from the region.

"If you want to be an architect in the Caribbean, Trinidad is the place to be," she said.

Workers seeking better jobs have island-hopped for generations, but a regional integration project is making it easier for professionals. Thousands have lined up to move under recently eased restrictions -- a migration boost that critics say will worsen economic disparities.

Before, professionals seeking work on another island had to be hired in advance by a company that would help them apply for work permits -- a complicated and lengthy process that often takes months.

Under the new rules for the Caribbean Single Market and Economy, an evolving economic union that groups together more than 6 million people in 12 nations, workers with university degrees or other special skills can register for certificates that allow them to move before they secure jobs. Those allowed under the special skills provision include calypso musi- cians and journalists.

Some on small islands have expressed concern they will be overrun by better-educated professionals from their larger neighbors.

"Antigua is tiny compared to Trinidad and Jamaica. It's clear we are not going to be able to compete with their larger talent pool," said Winston Derrick, a newspaper publisher and radio station owner in Antigua.

It's too soon, however, to know whether the concerns have any basis, said Esteban Perez, a U.N. economist based in Trinidad who has studied the union. So far, there haven't been enough migrants to harm any member nation's economy, he said.

About 2,000 professionals have taken advantage of the new flexibility, aimed at spurring economic growth.

Some, like Newton, have secured higher salaries. Others, such as Trinidadian community development planner Saffrey Brown, 30, said career opportunities seemed more fulfilling elsewhere. "Yeah, there's a boom in Trinidad, where I could have made more money, but Jamaica is where I can grow professionally," said Brown, who works renovating Jamaica's ghettos.

The free movement of professionals has been phased in slowly as part of the integration project. Some countries began allowing university-educated workers to work without permits in 1996, and the relaxed laws that now let various classes of professionals migrate freely took effect June 30.

Planners say the goal is to help the Caribbean compete in the global economy. But others worry the increased migration will exacerbate brain drain in some countries.

"Some of our best and brightest will be plucked away," said Bal Parsaud, the head of a business group in Guyana.

THE PLAN: The free movement of labor is the main aspect of the Caribbean Single Market, launched in 2005. Further integration is planned following the 2008 launch of the Caribbean Single Market and Economy, including free movement of capital and goods throughout the 12 countries. Planners also envision a single currency.

THE COUNTRIES: Antigua and Barbuda, Barbados, Belize, Dominica, Grenada, Guyana, Jamaica, St. Kitts and Nevis, St. Lucia, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Suriname, and Trinidad and Tobago.

THE RULES: University graduates, performing artists, business owners and others are free to move to any participating country without a work permit. They must receive certification from their home country and register upon arrival. Officials say the ultimate goal is the free movement of all labor.

THE PEOPLE: The 12 countries have a total population of more than 6 million people. Jamaica, with more than 2.6 million people, has the largest population, and St. Kitts and Nevis, with 47,900, has the smallest. The primary language in the region is English. Belize has some Spanish speakers and Suriname's official language is Dutch.

THE ECONOMY: Tourism is the major moneymaker for the smaller islands and Jamaica. The South American countries of Suriname and Guyana have agricultural-based economies, but both also mine large amounts of bauxite and gold. Sugar cane farming, historically important in many of the islands, is being phased out as Europe continues to cut subsidies.