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Caribbean experiments with more mobile workers, sparking competition fears

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 to work in another island had to be hired in advance by a company that would help them apply for a work permit – a complicated and lengthy process that often takes months.Now, 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 a certificate that allows them to move before they secure a job. Those allowed under the special skills provision include calypso musicians, performing artists 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 United Nations economist based in Trinidad who has studied the Caribbean Single Market. So far, there haven’t been enough migrants to harm any of the member nation’s economies, he said.About 2,000 professionals already are taking advantage of the new flexibility under the evolving Caribbean Single Market, 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 whose planners envision eventually adopting a single currency and closer political ties. 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.Even under the new rules, workers face bureaucratic hurdles.”The whole thing was a mess,” Brown said. “I needed to apply for the certificate in Trinidad, which took three months and then I had to apply again in Jamaica.”Planners say the goal is to help the Caribbean compete in the global economy. But in a region that already loses many of its college graduates to North America and Britain, 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, a poor nation on the northeast coast of South America.Allowing skilled workers to move freely while impeding unskilled workers “creates clear winners and losers, with more developed countries having an advantage,” said Daniel Erikson, a Caribbean analyst at the Inter-American Dialogue, a research institute in Washington, D.C.The new rules are not expected to have any effect on the tens of thousands of unskilled laborers who work illegally throughout the Caribbean.In their new countries, more than a dozen professionals interviewed by The Associated Press said similar cultures eased the transition.”I guess it’s like moving from one U.S. state to another in some ways. We speak the same language and have similar histories,” said Newton’s husband, Timothy.Mandilee Newton, who had no hope of finding work in Jamaica when she left three years ago, now designs commercial buildings in Port-of-Spain. But she still might not be ready to settle down.”Trinidad is the best place to be an architect in the Caribbean, but it’s not London or New York,” she said. “There’s a big world out there and I want to see it all.”


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