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Contractors chief: No to permit double standards

By NEIL HARTNELL

Tribune Business Editor

nhartnell@tribunemedia.net

The Bahamian Contractors Association’s (BCA) president yesterday called for “greater transparency and management” in the work permit process amid the ongoing controversy over “irregularities” involving Chinese construction workers.

Leonard Sands told Tribune Business it was vital that the Immigration laws are applied evenly, and that there are no double standards where the rules are different for certain developers and contractors, after it emerged that only three of the 65 Chinese workers found at the British Colonial could produce identity documents when asked by officials.

Speaking after it was revealed that Immigration officers were instructed to “stand down” less than one hour after they began an enforcement operation to determine whether the Chinese were in The Bahamas legally, and had the necessary work permits, the BCA chief said the revelations and ensuing controversy were “no surprise” for the industry given similar situations that have occurred previously.

While conceding that the Association cannot complain when all proper laws and procedures are followed in the granting of construction work permits, Mr Sands nevertheless warned the Davis administration and its successors that by “continuing to export” building work they are effectively denying Bahamian contractors and skilled tradesmen the chance to “earn a living” in their own country.

He revealed that, just prior to talking to Tribune Business, he had been speaking to a husband-and-wife team who own a heavy equipment and engineering company who had complained about a lack of work for the past two years because they were having to constantly compete with machinery bring brought into The Bahamas that they can provide.

“What is required is that there has to be an appreciation that an individual has the right to work in his own country, and if we continue to export the opportunities, we are saying that we don’t care about the ability of our citizens to earn an income,” Mr Sands told this newspaper. “That’s the larger underlying concern.

“A minute before you called I was on the phone with a contractor and his wife who spent their entire savings putting together a company in the heavy equipment and engineering field. They were complaining they have not had work for the last two years. They go up and down, trying to rent the heavy equipment that they own, but are faced with the same equipment being brought into the country.

“They have to pay to maintain it, keep it working, and it’s not being rented out. They’re asking: How do we get work? This is one company calling, and another one calling and another one calling. They’re all saying the same thing. They cannot get a job. The equipment is going to seize up, become rotten and they will have to lay-off staff.

“They’re legitimate contractors, members of the Association, pay taxes, keep up with VAT but every day money is going out and not coming in. It’s unfair. Our hope is that, if all things are equal, the cream rises to the top and we’ll be able to work and make a living.”

Keturah Ferguson, the Immigration director, in a January 18, 2023, letter to Cecilia Strachan, the Ministry of Labour and Immigration’s permanent secretary, wrote that her department’s enforcement team received directives from their minister, Keith Bell, to discontinue the British Colonial Hilton operation some 59 minutes after it had begun.

Mr Bell “indicated that this request” came from Chester Cooper, who was then serving as acting prime minister. If accurate, the memorandum indicates that China Construction America (CCA), the British Colonial’s owner, and which likely brought in the Chinese workers to work on the resort’s renovation, reached out almost immediately to members of the Davis Cabinet to have Immigration called off - something that appears to have happened with remarkable speed.

This was despite Ms Ferguson describing the 65 Chinese nationals as a potential “security breach” because Immigration was unclear as to who the 62 were, and how they arrived in The Bahamas. Mr Sands yesterday voiced concern over whether the law governing work permits and any infractions, and accompanying policies, were being evenly applied to all developers and employers with expatriate labour.

“I would hope the law is consistent and, if not, something will be done about it because everybody should be subject to the same criteria whether in the Act, policy or Heads of Agreement. It should be consistent,” he argued. “I cannot speak in this instance [the British Colonial] as to whether or not it has been followed. That’s for someone else to determine. I hope it was followed because everyone else has to comply with the same guidelines.

“We have developers, some doing developments, in our Association doing developments and, if they have work permit holders, they are asked to keep them current and make sure their permits do not lapse. It would help if every developer is held to the same standard. It would be unfair to others who have to make sure their work permits don’t expire.”

Describing the British Colonial situation as “very, very concerning”, Mr Sands declined to pass judgment after the Prime Minister’s Office last night released a statement saying it would investigate the situation and address any concerns. “It just underscores the lack of transparency and management of the granting of permits,” he told Tribune Business.

“It’s how we manage it. We can understand it [the issuance of work permits] has to happen. It will not change. The question is how we manage it and monitor it to make sure the law is being followed. That’s as much as we can ask. Once the law is followed all we can do is cry about loss of opportunity but that’s as far as we can go with it.”