February 19, 2014

Going To The British Virgin Islands Is Harder Than They Want It To Be

By: Ken Silva

“The worst law is better than bureaucratic tyranny,” – Ludwig von Mises


“People: We didn’t choose to be bureaucrats

No, that’s what our mighty Ja made us

We treat people like swine

And make them stand in line

Even if nobody paid us,”

—Hermes Conrad, Futurama.


We’re all taught from day one that “dog-ate-the-homework” excuses don’t fly in the real world, but some people never take the lesson to heart. Those people end up working in government bureaucracies, in my experience.

Winding down a long and arduous immigration process over the last few months to work in the British Virgin Islands, all I needed to finish it was pick up my completed paperwork from the immigration department and take it to the Labour Department to obtain my work permit. The problem was that the immigration department didn’t have the paperwork ready on time.

Why? Because a bureaucrat put it in a locked drawer – and lost the key.

“Come back tomorrow and hopefully I’ll have it,” she told me with a shrug. I laughed at first because I thought she was joking. But when she kept staring at me with a blank face, I thanked her politely and quickly left. One thing you never want to do is upset a bureaucrat; that’s a sure-fire way for your paperwork to never again see the light of day.

Sadly, my boss wasn’t too surprised, when I told him what had happened, saying he’s never had an employee who didn’t have some sort of delay obtaining permission to work. Some workers only experienced a couple days’ delay while others have told me their delay lasted months. A co-worker of mine was detained in the airport for several hours just because her criminal background check didn’t have the seal of the police chief; she had to wait six months before she was finally legal.

This is bad news for an island where two-thirds of its 18,000 workers are of foreign descent.

Consider the negative impact that permitting delays have on economic productivity: If the department has to approve 10,000 permits a year for workers making an average of only $15 an hour, and there is an average of a two-day delay (16 hours) per year for each worker, that’s an annual $2.4 million opportunity cost – time waiting that could have been put towards productive work – which is a large sum for an island of less than 25,000 people. And those numbers used are extremely conservative estimates. Keep in mind that many people work in the financial services sector and make far more than $15 an hour, and that the BVI Labour Department estimates a processing time of seven to 10 days – the delays I’m talking about are simply those beyond this estimated processing time.

And forget about the opportunity costs. What about the explicit costs?

Employees making more than $25,000 must pay a $1,000 fee each year; those making less than that “only” have to pay $600. Then there’s the $1,000 fee employers must pay. These fees are yearly for at least the first decade.

Then there are the medical tests. My boss told me U.S. doctors would laugh at the archaic tests required. He was right. There was a test for tuberculosis (not the new blood test available, though, but the old-fashioned skin test); a blood test for syphilis (but not for HIV); and a stool sample to check for parasites. All were necessary for the health and safety of the islanders, apparently. That’s thousands of dollars in costs and lost time for each potential worker.

These processes may not be out of the ordinary for most countries. And yes, many countries have far more tedious steps to undertake before one can work. Thankfully, the island has heavy incentives to let people immigrate. Without immigrants, the BVI would not have the highest per-capita income in the Caribbean.

“Everyone has to go through the hassle, but they almost always pass,” said Jamaican native “Ziggy” Efron Lewis, who has worked on the BVI for about a half-decade now. “Tourism is down, not as many people are staying at hotels. They can’t afford to turn people away.”

But that’s also the problem: Even in a territory so heavily incentivized to expedite the immigration process, it’s still hampered by bureaucracies that have become self-serving entities. Other countries don’t have such incentives – even the free-market Swiss people recently passed a referendum to restrict immigration – which contributes to a lack of immigration that costs untold billions, contributes to world poverty and hunger, and props up dictatorships and other bad governments by forcing their people to stay there and fund them.

I finally received my work permit and got to work two days later. The same lady who informed me about the lost key was the one who gave me the final stamp of approval.

“You now are an official resident of the British Virgin Islands,” she said unceremoniously. “Welcome.”

Ken Silva is a writer currently based in Ohio. British Virgin Islands image courtesy of Big Stock Photo.