September 21, 2023

Bahamians first, but not to make the mistakes made in the Cayman Islands

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WHILE “unequivocally” backing the Government’s ‘Bahamian First’ policy, the Bahamas Chamber of Commerce and Employers Confederation’s (BCCEC) chairman yesterday said it had to avoid a work permit regime that “discourages industry or investment in the Bahamas”.

Speaking after the Minister of Labour, Shane Gibson, warned that Bahamian companies had to “justify” every work permit, and that it would not be “business as usual” on labour certification, Chester Cooper urged the Government to develop “specific timelines” for deciding whether to approve these applications.

Acknowledging that foreign-owned companies would naturally want their own personnel to head-up their Bahamian operations, the BCCEC chairman urged the Government to avoid what had befallen the Cayman Islands, which had seen an exodus of some financial services business after a work permit regime tightening.

Supporting the Bahamas Financial Services Board’s (BFSB) position for “flexibility” on work permits, in a bid to attract international attorneys that controlled key blocks of client business, Mr Cooper said the issue “cuts both ways”. This meant that multinationals operating in the Bahamas offered training and career opportunities for Bahamians abroad.

“We must have a robust and responsive work permit regime that grants work permits promptly where specialised skills are needed,” Mr Cooper told Tribune Business.

“There should be agreed a specific timeline for approval or denial, so that the business can plan strategically to fill gaps. We must not act precipitously in a manner that discourages industry or investment in the Bahamas.”

And the BCCEC chair added: “Whilst I support the ‘Bahamian First’ principle unequivocally, we encourage our member employers to continue training and development, investment in Bahamians and take advantage of the Chamber Institute’s programmes.

“We encourage Bahamian workers to continue to rise to the occasion and apply themselves. ‘Bahamian First’ must not mean ‘Bahamian First at any cost’. We clearly need to perform at international standards to keep the Bahamas competitive.”

He was commenting after Mr Gibson railed at the number of work permits currently held by the Bahamas Telecommunications Company (BTC) and Grand Bahama Power Company.

Mr Gibson had said on Island FM’s Parliament Street: “Every little thing, we’re bringing in foreigners – why do we need that?

“I’m now instructing the Labour Department to contact these employers, let them know I want them to send me a justification for every single individual they have on work permit and give me a timeframe as to when these individuals will be out of the Bahamas and these jobs will be turned over to Bahamians.”

He added: “I’m putting all the employers on notice that it will not be business as usual as far as getting labour certificates – we will not be issuing labour certificates. Send us your plan, let us know your succession plan, tell us we don’t have any Bahamians qualified to do this job now, so I’m bringing in this person for six months, and this individual will be understudying them and so I’m requesting a labour certificate.

“Once you’re able to justify it, were going to give you a labour certificate. Other than that, we will be systematically denying those labour certificates where we have Bahamians. We cannot have Bahamians sitting down in the Bahamas watching all these foreigners come and work while they’re sitting down home, could do the work, but doing nothing.”

But, acknowledging the needs of foreign-owned companies, Mr Cooper said: “The reality is that when a company invests abroad, they want to ensure that their investment is protected by people they know.

“We could look at the Cayman model, where we see some transfer-out of a lot of their financial services business by some institutions as a result of not being able to find ‘suitable’ skills locally and inability to obtain work permits.”

Backing Mr Gibson’s intention to work with companies and industry groups to understand their strategy and labour needs, the BCCEC chairman pointed out that the BFSB and individual financial services practitioners had urged the Bahamas to attract, and permit, leading international attorneys to base themselves in this nation.

These high-end attorneys and advisers, he explained, had “specialised skills and experience in international tax and complicated financial products targeted at high network individuals” – just the clients the Bahamas, with its private wealth management core specialisation, was seeking to target.

Mr Cooper added: “The reality is that these lawyers and advisors bring with them international law firm connections, established centre of influences and a following of clients. We support this position.

“Being flexible in the granting of work permits (and approvals to practice) will be good for the expansion of the financial services industry, which would be good for the Bahamas and the employment of more Bahamians ultimately. Let me be clear: This is not about the competence or aptitude of Bahamian lawyers, but rather the requisite international experience and client-following.”

Yet Mr Cooper countered: “This works both ways. For example, in the case of multinationals, they should be encouraged to send Bahamians abroad to their affiliate companies for training and development, and they should receive some form of credit for doing so in the discussion on Bahamas work permits.

“And we must encourage Bahamians living abroad to bring their expertise back home to support the development of the Bahamas.”

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