Dossier: Louis Somner at the BIU keeps tabs on firms that exploit workers. *Photo by James Whittaker
Dossier: Louis Somner at the BIU keeps tabs on firms that exploit workers. *Photo by James Whittaker

Unemployed Bermudians say they are struggling to find jobs that pay well enough to cover their basic needs.

Roughly 1,600 are out of work as Labour Day approaches.

The jobs are out there, says the Bermuda Industrial Union, but they are not always going to Bermudians.

The union’s Louis Somner said some firms prefer foreign workers because they cost less and are more willing to work overtime without additional pay.

And he accused firms of manipulating job advertisements to keep Bermudians from applying.

Many basic jobs are now asking for a mandatory drug test and a GED. Others stipulate ‘must be prepared to work long hours, weekends, public holidays and Christmas’.

One newspaper ad for someone to serve coffee in a supermarket advertises for a ‘Customer service representative for Godiva Café’ and demands a high school diploma as a minimum.

Another, for a plasterer, insists — ‘experience in EIFS finish systems essential’ — something Mr. Somner claims a qualified plasterer could learn in a day (though some dispute this).

He believes the real point of the mandatory drug tests, the warnings of long unsociable hours with no mention of overtime pay and the complex job descriptions is to deter applicants.

“It is a way of saying ‘Bermudians need not apply’,” he said.

Mr. Somner said the recession, combined with a lull in construction projects, had left many Bermudians out of work.

And he claimed that while Immigration Minister Colonel David Burch had insisted as the recession hit that Bermudian jobs should be the last to go — the opposite had happened.

“Bermudians have been the first to go, while migrant workers have kept their jobs,” Mr. Somner said.

One dry-waller told the Bermuda Sun he had been forced to send his wife and child to stay with her parents in New Jersey because he couldn’t find enough shifts to pay the family’s bills.

The man, who asked not be named, said he had been working on construction sites across Bermuda for 20 years but could no longer get work.

He was made redundant earlier this year. He claims favouritism was shown to Canadian workers who were kept on despite redundancies.

Carpenter Reginald Harvey told us he was laid off in February: “There were a lot of redundancies because of the economy. I’ve filled out a bunch of applications for other jobs but I have had no luck.

“I’ve even applied outside my field to grocery stores. I need a job to survive and to look after my youth — right now I will take anything.

“I’ve been working as a carpenter for 25 years. I’m not used to having no job.”

Mr. Somner said the disparity in wages across the industry made it hard for Bermudians to compete for jobs.

He echoed the concerns of union boss Chris Furbert, who claimed last week that Bermudians were being stereotyped as lazy. And he said employers used that as an excuse to hire migrants whom they could control by using threats over permits.

Mr. Somner is compiling a dossier of complaints from both foreign workers and Bermudians at job sites across the island.

According to his files, one restaurant boss boasted: “All I have to say to keep my workers in line is ‘work permit, work permit’.”

A construction boss openly told employees: “Bermuda is great — it would be even better without Bermudians”, according to reports submitted by disgruntled foreign workers.

Mr. Somner refuted suggestions by MP Ashfield DeVent— made in The Royal Gazette — that the unions had not done enough about the ‘criminal conditions’ of some migrant workers.

He said the BIU had been helping foreign workers for years — including a group of Colombian dry-wallers whose low wages sparked industrial action at a job site in Tucker’s Town in 2007. The protest cost the firm a contract.

“For him to say something like that is just ridiculous. We’ve been confronting this issue for migrant workers and locals for years.

“In order for it to be fully exposed, the workers need to stop being closet complainers and come forward to us with their concerns.”

He urged anyone who was being mistreated or threatened or asked to work overtime without pay to inform the union and the Labour Ministry.

At the other end of the scale, he said U.S., Canadian and British workers got better deals than Bermudians on job sites.

“Two employees might get the same pay but the American gets $1,200 a month for rent, plane tickets home every two to three months and a rental bike. A Bermudian doing the same job is lucky to get a turkey or a ham for Christmas.”

He said it was a three-tier system with the anglo saxons at the top, the Bermudians in the middle and the workers from less developed countries at the bottom.

Chief union organizer George Scott said workers from Canada and the U.S. often had certifications that Bermudians didn’t – enabling them to get the pick of the top jobs.

But he added that employers need to do more to train locals.

“They are not adhering to their responsibility to train workers. If we are bringing people in from all over the world we should be getting some reciprocal benefit.”

He said the BIU had links with unions in Canada and the U.S. that provided training in all aspects of the construction trade.

“The employers and the construction association should partner with us to get people out there to get training. Right now it doesn’t make sense building a tech school — if we had support we could partner with these unions to become self sufficient.”

Mr Somner said the PLP platform in 2007 had committed to doing more to tie work permits to training locals. But he said the current Employment Act did not go far enough to protect Bermudian jobs.

Labour Day special

As Labour Day approaches, the Bermuda Sun takes a look at the island’s immigration trends. We examined the influence of a reported influx of low-wage unskilled labour from overseas combined with the more familiar faces of the well-paid international business workers and asked — where does this leave regular Bermudians?