March 19, 2013
The Bahamas Chamber of Commerce and Employers Confederation (BCCEC) will meet with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs today due to growing concerns over work permits. While details are sparse at this time, Guardian Business understands that top BCCEC executives specifically requested the audience. The chamber could not comment on the proceedings at this time. Tensions in the business community are arguably at an all-time high following pronouncements by Foreign Affairs Minister Fred Mitchell on changes to the visa procedure.
Dionisio D'Aguilar, president of Superwash and former head of the chamber, told Guardian Business that the government has "scared the bejesus" out of the business community. The well-known businessman said that government is not getting honest assessments from people because they are "scared to death" of what impact it could have on their businesses. Although Mitchell declared that restrictions are only coming for maids and other domestic staff, D'Aguilar said the entire Department of Immigration could soon tighten up and make already long waits even worse for legitimate foreign worker requests.
"Everyone is complaining that the whole process has slowed down, which is sending a message. And the method whereby it is being done is scaring a lot of businesses," he explained. "Everyone is panicking." Late last week, Mitchell responded to outcries from leaders in the private sector, calling the criticism "irrational". He said the government has no intention of hamstringing businesses. In his speech to the House of Assembly, critics noted that the government alluded, however, to higher fees for work permits and a gradual crackdown on other industries.
Private sector leaders have since come to the defense of their businesses, arguing a reasonable number of permits are necessary. "It is fairly straightforward to know the issues," said Winston Rolle, the outgoing CEO of the BCCEC. "You are talking about raising the cost of work permits. Two, you have to be careful not to create an environment where people have a stronger sense of entitlement, where Bahamians are hired because they have to be. I understand the concern, but you cannot take a broad-brush approach."
Rolle also told Guardian Business that recent events will only force the private sector to revisit long wait times at the Ministry of Immigration. "Don't increase the work permit fee. Just increase the application fee, so you can offer people an expedited service and we have a definite timeframe on when it will be done," D'Aguilar added. "Businesses have been screaming and shouting. You just never know how long it will take. You can't run a business that way."
D'Aguilar noted that, in his opinion, there are not too many work permits on the books. Regardless, he said improving the process and efficiency at the Ministry of Immigration is arguably even more significant for the private sector. The BCCEC is expected to release a statement following its meeting with Mitchell. "There has to be immigration labor in the workforce," D'Aguilar explained. "Let's accept that and work with that. Let's get away from the numbers and get the department working efficiently."
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