Saturday, May 4, 2013

Bahamas Immigration Policy Hurts Tourism ...and Business Expansion

Immigration Policy Hurting Tourism Investment

Tribune 242 Editorial:

MANY BAHAMIANS are walking contradictions. They accept that this country needs the goodwill of tourists and foreign investors, but — in the words spoken from the floor of the House by an older generation — they also “believe that they should bring them (foreigners) in, suck ’em dry and throw out the husks”.
While the Tourism Ministry is spending big bucks to convince visitors and investors that the Bahamas is the ultimate paradise, the heavy boots of Immigration seem to be working overtime to destroy those efforts.
If it is an increase in Bahamian jobs that this government wants, then the Immigration policies, as currently executed, are not going to encourage production of those jobs — rather it will mean that, even locally, many business owners will think twice before expanding.
It should be made mandatory for every Immigration officer to attend the Bahamas Host programme to understand what it means to be working in such a sensitive economy — an economy that depends upon goodwill and confidence. Good manners will not hinder these officers in the efficient execution of their duties, but at least they will learn how to carry out their duties without being boorish.
Judging from the hits on our website from the general public and the telephone calls, the public is incensed by the treatment of the sea lion trainer who was humiliated before the guests of Atlantis earlier this week. All Bahamian hotels are competing against the world market for the tourist dollar. This is the only way that they can keep their doors open, hotel rooms filled, and Bahamians employed.
Atlantis, with its almost 8,000 employees and related associates, is the largest private employer in the Bahamas. Of this number, 74 are foreigners on work permits — way below the number of permits allowed Atlantis under its heads of agreement with government.
Yet this week, three Immigration officers entered Atlantis’ private property through a back gate, interrupted a session the sea lion trainer was conducting with some of the hotel’s visitors, demanded her passport, which, of course, she did not have on her, resulting in them ordering her to their car and driving off. No explanation to anyone. It was a mistake, of course. The lady was breaking no Immigration laws. She was working legally for the resort.
While calling the incident “regrettable,” Immigration Minister Fred Mitchell’s comment that on some occasions the execution of policy causes some “confusion” was not good enough.
Nobody can be confused by common good manners. Wouldn’t it have been more polite to have waited until the session with the guests was over? The officers could have then taken the lady aside and asked the pertinent questions.
Of course, the correct procedure, rather than rushing out the door to show off their bully tactics, would have been to have checked the database at Immigration to confirm the woman’s immigration status. What they would have discovered was that whoever had “tipped” them off to the “illegality” was misinformed.
If whoever in Immigration had done their job, these men would never have been instructed to go to the resort. However, even if Immigration had discovered something wrong, they should have telephoned the hotel and asked to speak with Mr George Markantonis, the president and managing director of the resort, or one of his assistants. But, oh, no! There’s certain excitement in showing who is the boss “in we country!”
Although matters had been smoothed over, Mr Markantonis made it clear that he was still “extremely upset” at the “heavy-handed behaviour” of two of those three officers.
An Associated Press report, published in the Charlotte Observer, in Charlotte, North Carolina, on Wednesday, quoted Mr Winston Rolle, former CEO of the Chamber of Commerce, as saying that there are not enough skilled Bahamian workers available for the private sector in the Bahamas.
“What happens when we cannot find people to get the job done? Are these businesses supposed to go without? I don’t think that is practical and realistic,” Mr Rolle said. “I think the current stance by government is damaging. For people sitting outside of the Bahamas, what is being portrayed is scary.”
But Atlantis was not the only resort graced with Immigration’s presence.
Mr Sandy Sands, senior vice president of Baha Mar, had his own Immigration visit. The officers arrived at the Sheraton during the lunch period and detained senior engineers. Mr Sands said that the officers approached the foreign staff in public view. ‘‘At our urging,” said Mr Sands, the officials agreed to “take the matter to a private location,” where the matter was resolved.
While supporting the Bahamianisation policy – by “recruiting talented Bahamians to work in various positions throughout the organisation,” said Mr Sands – “the long-term success of our project depends on attracting expatriates whose skill sets contribute to the success of the project or our operating entities and by extension contribute to the long term success of our operation.
“We have to be careful in terms of the manner in which enforcement of the Immigration Department is conducted and we really have to enhance the perception that the government welcomes foreign investment and by extension welcomes those skill sets that are not readily available within the country.”
The country also has to be “very careful”, he said, that it does not send signals to investors or potential investors that the country is not investor-friendly.
According to Wikileaks, a US Embassy official in February 1976 had an interesting conversation over lunch with the country’s former deputy prime minister Arthur Hanna. The topic was the country’s Bahamianisation policy.
They discussed a range of ideas, including the cost of work permits. It was noted that certain firms had argued that their profits were so marginal that the permit fees might force them out of business. There was also the claim by the larger firms, which had to bring in large numbers of technicians to service equipment, that the added costs were prohibitive.
“Hanna’s attitude,” the official reported to Washington, “ranged from scepticism to outright rejection. He showed no concern over the possibility that the alternative to paying the work permit fees or employing Bahamians was to close down the business.”
Today with the economy desperate for an injection of capital, no one can afford to have such a cavalier attitude — certainly it will not produce the 10,000 jobs that the PLP promised in their first months in government.
April 26, 2013