Bermuda seeks more racial balance in work force
ABC News WIRE:06/22/2000 10:16:00 ET
HAMILTON, Bermuda (Reuters) - Bermuda's government has toned down proposed regulations aimed at increasing the number of black workers at international companies following criticism from business groups and the opposition political party.
But Development and Opportunity Minister Terry Lister, who is spearheading efforts to bring more racial balance to the island's professional work force, said he still expects one in ten Bermuda companies to come under scrutiny because they have failed to recruit enough blacks.
"I'm not interested in upsetting the apple cart to make Bermuda go backward, but I am interested in bright and capable people having a chance to move forward," he told Reuters in an interview in the historic Cabinet Building in Hamilton.
Parliament has been embroiled in the politics of race since shortly after the 1998 Progressive Labor election victory ushered in the first government that did not trace its roots in some form to Bermuda's white settlers.
At the center of the debate is CURE, the Commission for Unity and Racial Equality. Formed under a previous government in 1994, CURE was amended last year to allow the government for the first time to collect detailed statistics on black hirings, firings and compensation, among other things.
Lister, who in the coming weeks will unveil revised forms companies will use to report the racial composition of their work force, said the only remedy available to the government to pressure companies to balance their work force will be private -- and possibly public -- pressure.
"One, it should be because it's good business. But they may have to do it because the government is standing there."
ISLAND WITH A ROCKY RACIAL HISTORY
Bermuda has one of the highest standards of living in the world but a professional business base that is effectively "lily white," Lister said.
With effectively no unemployment, international companies must import workers, known on the island as expats.
Although Lister has moderated his position on forcing these firms to find black expats for executive posts, he will continue to pressure service companies like hotels, restaurants and construction companies to balance their work forces.
Of 8,000 work permits issued to expatriates, about 1,200 were filed by international companies, while most were seeking workers for hotels, restaurants and construction trades.
The single largest category for work permits is for chefs. The government itself is seeking immigrants to ease a shortage of police. These are the jobs where Lister believes the island can make the most progress in balancing its work force.
"I refuse to accept the case that all my waiters are white," said Lister, whose great-grandfather emigrated from St. Kitts in 1904 among a wave of dockyard workers brought over from the Caribbean. Settled by the British in 1609, Bermuda has a rocky racial history. In 1623, laws were enacted "to restrayne the insolencies of Negroes," forbidding blacks to engage in commerce without consent of their masters.
Several slave uprisings were quashed in colonial times and it was not until 1834 that slavery was abolished. Still, as in the United States, segregation continued well into the 1960s.
A 1991 study found that black Bermudans with a university degree earned less than white Bermudans who had not finished high school. But most Bermudans outwardly subscribe to a "let's all get along" philosophy, although vestiges of lingering racism surface from time to time.
THE ANT AND THE GRASSHOPPER
PLP leaders at times have played the race card when confronted on the floor of parliament and in the island press over issues ranging from free cruises taken by government ministers to a fleet of oversized cars brought onto an island of narrow, winding roads for government officials.
"They think all of a sudden you've let the niggers off the plantation and they (the opposition United Bermuda Party) cannot see the prejudice in their comments," Telecommunications Minister Renee Webb said during a recent heated exchange on the House floor.
As recently as March, the island was roiled over an e-mail circulated among white friends comparing blacks to the grasshopper in the fable who frittered the summer away, only to turn to the industrious ant for survival when winter came.
Lister said CURE amendments, which failed to pass the Senate in March, will level the playing field for blacks.
The revised proposal will include six forms businesses will have to fill out to document the racial composition of their work force. The two most critical forms will be used to determine whether companies have a racially balanced work force in line with similar companies in their industry category, and whether pay for black workers lags that of whites.
"The people who are looking at CURE as righting the wrongs and retribution, I think they will be surprised," said Pat Phillip-Bassett, who heads the Bermuda International Business Association. "One would hope that there won't be a big black list. One would hope," she added.
CHANGING PERCEPTIONS AT BANK OF BERMUDA
Despite criticism from the business community and a goal of moving companies closer to the 60-40 black-white ratio of people living in Bermuda, Lister insists there are no quotas in the legislation and the CURE regulations will be color blind.
"For those that are below (their peer companies), I will have to look at them. An all-black company under the law is required to do the same as a white company is doing," he said, adding that he expects about 50 of the island's 500 companies eventually to come under CURE scrutiny.
While working to ease the CURE regulations, businesses are scrambling ahead of the first CURE reports. The Bank of Bermuda, a bastion of the business community, has been striving to erase its long-standing reputation as a "white" bank.
"Part of the problem here comes to the way the bank was perceived," bank president Henry Smith said.
"Despite our best efforts, we have not succeeded in earning the trust of the people. A lot of people see the bank as a white, male organization."
A series of meetings between Lister and various business groups on the island also seem to have cleared the air of concerns that government would impose hiring quotas or seek to punish companies in the court of public opinion.
"There was a certain amount of rhetoric when it was first being discussed. It's being solved now in a sort of sensible way," Bermuda Stock Exchange chief executive officer William Woods said.