Construction sites are an area of employment under close scrutiny. *File photo
Construction sites are an area of employment under close scrutiny. *File photo

A strengthening of the island’s chief immigration officer’s authority has one Opposition politician calling for stronger measures to punish legally wayward employers, while encouraging Bermudian hiring.

The Ministry of Home Affairs issued a reminder yesterday that from April 1, the chief immigration officer can levy fines of up to $10,000 against employers who hire unauthorized workers.

Home Affairs Minister Michael Fahy said the new rules stem from last year’s overhaul of work permit policy.

“We recognized that we needed to strike a balance between protecting Bermudian jobs and ensuring that our business stakeholders understood that Bermuda is open for business,” he said through a statement.

His counterpart, Shadow Minister of Home Affairs Walter Roban, acknowledged that any step to bolster enforcement of immigration policy “is a step in the right direction”.

Permit freeze?

Mr Roban added, however, that the government should be considering freezing work permit applications for certain jobs.

“There should be an examination of certain job categories,” he told the Sun. “We might need some freezes on additional permits to encourage Bermudian hiring.”

He added: “Firms that have a record of repeated abuse of work permit policies or those who are not good corporate citizens should have their work applications either rejected or at least heavily scrutinized.”

Employers, Mr Roban said, are the ones who are initiating most of the immigration infractions on the island. “Some employees, due to coercion or just to have and keep their job, go along with that.”

The new powers are granted by the Immigration and Protection Amendment (No 2) Act, 2013.

The law enables the chief immigration officer to levy civil penalties of $5,000 to $10,000 against those employers who knowingly hire unauthorized workers without a work permit and against those workers who are performing duties outside of conditions prescribed by their work permit, according to the statement from Minister Fahy’s office. 

Criminal penalties for offences under the act, according to the statement, are also set to increase from $5,000 to $10,000 for a summary conviction and from $10,000 to $25,000 for an indictable offence.

Ronnie Viera, president of the Bermuda Chamber of Commerce, said his organization had been aware of the changes for some time. The group, he said, supports stronger enforcement where there is a clear violation of immigration law. He is confident the vast majority of companies adhere to immigration laws. He is not, however, without concerns.

“The concern expressed to me by some chamber members is that there are examples in various industries where certain minor restrictions are in place for work permit holders but are not always adhered to strictly,” he said. “Examples such as a waiter/waitress in a restaurant who pours a soda from the fountain when the bartender is not available or in the construction industry, where a mason instructs a crane operator on where to place a pallet of block.”

Flagrant violation

Such actions, he said, are not flagrant violations of immigration policy. Rather, they are activities “that happen in the moment because it makes sense, is more efficient or in the interest of good customer service,” according to Mr Viera.

“So the question is, will these types of activities now be the target of a large fine?” he asked. “I understand that the approach to enforcement will be reasonable, so we will have to wait and see.”

He is not the only one adopting a wait-and-see approach.

The effect of the act’s implementation will likely not be seen until next year, said Mr. Roban.

“We’ll reserve our judgment as to the effectiveness of what’s done,” he said. “We’ll see if there’s an uptick in investigations and actual enforcement.”

Under Bermudian immigration law, the burden is placed on the employers to verify the qualifications of a prospective employee and to make sure that unauthorized workers are not hired.

According to Minister Fahy, proper oversight of the work application process “plays a critical role in preventing recruitment violations and the employment of guest workers in jobs which may otherwise be occupied by Bermudians”.

The new powers are part of an enforcement strategy, Minister Fahy said, that “will address both employers who knowingly hire unauthorized workers without a work permit and workers who are performing duties outside of conditions prescribed by their work permit”.