For decades unskilled Jamaicans have been travelling to Canada and the US on visa’s which allow them to work temporarily for 6-9 months. Farm workers would normally be the bulk of this group, yet since the 1990’s, the exercise has taken on a different flavour.
Hotel workers now make up the lion share, numbering well into the hundreds of thousands. Within the last year the US sponsors have begun complaining about the discipline and reliability of the candidates which are being selected by the Ministry of Labour in Kingston to participate in the program.
Hundreds who have been selected and made the big trip, have absconded, breaking regulations, leaving the program weeks after arrival, causing employers much economic loss and heartache. In 2002 the Hotel employers and those scouting on their behalf from the US, have asked that the program be altered, tightening standards and procedures that would secure labour for the full duration, while limiting the breach in contracts. Instead of paying the entire processing fees and airline tickets of Jamaican subjects, employers now pay a percentage and in many cases dictate that each candidate must pay their own airfares.
The biggest area of concern is that as the unemployment rate increases in US cities, along with changes to immigration procedure, more and more scrutiny is being placed on persons seeking to immigrate to North America for short or long periods.
The H2b visa was seen as Jamaicans big chance to flee the Island’s high unemployment. As persons earn foreign exchange, it would leak out of the US into Jamaica when seasonal migrants return home.
The program, despite the failures, has worked true to form, as much of the remittances that have managed to flow into Jamaica in recent times, comes from labourers who have no desire of staying in the United States or Canada but who are saving their earnings and sending it back home to improve their homes and general welfare.
Federal United States laws limit the issuance of visas to just about 66,000. In 1998, 24,895 persons all tolled were admitted. With Mexico and Canada being the largest groups and Jamaica placing third. Admiring our ability to speak English and work well under challenging circumstances at low US wages, the foreign employers have been asking for more Jamaicans. In 2002, some 11,000 Jamaicans benefited from the program, making Jamaica a big winner and probably now the largest pool of workers in the H2b Visa category.
For Jamaicans who make it in the program, the experience is normally more than a cultural exchange, as each worker earns money that they could never imagine making back in the yard. Yet as the US Tourist Industry learns the skills of hotel management, low costs and high value from Jamaica’s so called unskilled workers, one wonders how soon will it take for them to source even cheaper labour, eventually closing the gates on the islanders new found avenue to mobility.