Two powerhouse organizations from the private sector met with government yesterday for candid discussions on the state of work permits and immigration procedures.
Chester Cooper, the chairman of the Bahamas Chamber of Commerce and Employers Confederation (BCCEC), and Stuart Bowe, president of the Bahamas Hotel and Tourism Association (BHTA), expressed concern over policy changes as it relates to foreign workers. But most importantly, the private sector addressed a long-standing frustration with the Department of Immigration.
"In a world where in places like Mauritius and Singapore you get a response to an application in 48 hours, we don't think it's too ambitious to ask The Bahamas to commit to an initial four-week response," Cooper said. "Improving this measurably over time will help us in cementing our aspiration of becoming a global business hub."
Bowe echoed these sentiments, adding that there is an "urgent need" to better manage the work permit process. The BHTA chief said that the process needs to include proper tracking, perhaps electronically, where employers can visibly see progress being made.
Bowe said the BHTA has developed fact sheets on the permitting process to promote compliance and ensure systems are in place to develop and find qualified Bahamians.
"In a highly competitive global economy, The Bahamas must continue to strive to meet the dual objectives of protecting and developing Bahamian labor while recognizing the need to import certain skills in circumstances where qualified Bahamians are not available or forthcoming," the association leaders said in a statement.
The response from the private sector stands as perhaps the most united effort in recent years to solve a long-standing issue.
In the House of Assembly last week, Minister of Foreign Affairs and Immigration Fred Mitchell announced that the government would stop issuing work permits for maids and other domestic staff next year. He also hinted that further restrictions are coming for other industries, including a spike in work permit fees.
Since then, prominent members of the private sector have stepped up, prompting the BCCEC and BHTA to request meetings with Mitchell.
Industry leaders also underlined the "critical importance" of understanding Baha Mar’s future impact on the country.
The BHTA highlighted the ongoing problem with processing tourists at Bahamas Customs and Immigration. In some cases, tourists are waiting one-and-a-half hours due to low staffing levels.
"We find this state of affairs simply unacceptable," the organizations said in a statement. "Complaints from irate business and tourism travelers have grown and the minister assured that efforts are actively underway to correct the problem."
The BCCEC and BHTA felt the backlog at LPIA is related to the work permit issue, in the sense that proper resources and technology need to be brought to bear.
Cooper went on to highlight a lack of proper planning as it relates to the workforce. Citizens need to understand what opportunities are available, he said, whether it is Baha Mar or other areas of the economy.
He said more transparency is needed in terms of what jobs and how many permits are being applied for.
Cooper and Bowe referred to the meetings as a "good first step" in creating constructive dialogue with government. A second meeting is being planned in four weeks.
The Nassau Guardian
Published: March 20, 2013