Should work permit holders be forced to speak English?
That was the question asked in the House of Keys as MHKs debated changes to the work permit legislation.
Peter Karran (Lib Van, Onchan) suggested an amendment that arrangements be made for work permit applicants to be examined for their ability to speak English – and to charge them for that test.
He said: ‘I want an inclusive society. If we don’t addess the issue of forcing people to be able to communicate in English, the divides will happen.
‘The previous chief constable has expressed concerns about certain areas in Douglas where English is not a majority language. We need to force people to make sure we don’t end up with ghetto-isation.
‘I believe it is not unreasonable that we make sure that English has to be encouraged. There has to be some sort of commitment to actually learn the language.’
Environment Minister Phil Gawne said: ‘It is essential for people who are living and working in the Isle of Man if they are here for some considerable time for them to be able to speak English. But equally I wouldn’t want us to appear we are being xenophobic on this and I’m sure that wasn’t the member’s intention.
‘There’s a positive aspect to a multi-lingual society and a multi-cultural society as well, provided we do make sure that people can communicate in the majority language of the country.’
But Mr Gawne pointed out there are international businesses operating in the island who may employ fluent Russian and Chinese speakers who don’t need to speak any English at all as they are specialists on a short-term permit.
Mr Karran replied: ‘My concern is the little pockets of areas where English is not the first language are growing.’
He said that where people had a problem with language, exploitation grows. ‘It is not acceptable there are people who are working in this island who can’t understand English. What happens to health and safety? What happens to employment legislation? We are creating an underclass. It’s so important for law and order because if we end up with streets where English is not the first language you end with the cultures of these places that are not on the same lines of going through the law enforcement agencies.
‘It may be an issue that’s premature at the moment but it’s an issue we are going to have to address. How can these people be safe if they can’t speak a reasonable level of English?’
Mr Karran also tabled an amendment calling for employers to have to pay for healthcare insurance for employees on work permits. He said it was regrettable that more Isle of Man workers on the dole weren’t taking up jobs like cleaning that were being done instead by foreign nationals, often from Eastern Europe.
Economic Development Minister John Shimmin suggested that the language used by Mr Karran was unfortunate and we should be encouraging, not discouraging, employers. He questioned how the health insurance provision would be enforced.
But he said his department would support the part of Mr Karran’s motion relating to English examinations. He pointed out the worst in the world for learning a foreign language was probably the British. ‘For many people coming over to the Isle of Man the main purpose is to actually learn the language,’ he said.
Mr Karran’s amendment relation to English tests was approved by 21 votes to one.