A Guest Editorial On Government's Immigration Policy

IN OUR e–mail yesterday, we received “some thoughts for an editorial” from an influential foreign resident, who has spent many years in the Bahamas and has always been most concerned for this small nation’s welfare.

Instead of “highjacking” his ideas — as Immigration Minister Fred Mitchell yesterday accused us of doing in the work permit debate — we are going to let this gentleman express his own ideas in this column. After reading this article, Mr Mitchell should realise that we are not the only ones who believe that if the immigration policy — as enunciated by Mr Mitchell— is not softened, then this country is in for a rough ride.

We now turn you over to our guest writer:

AS the debate about the government’s new immigration policy intensifies, it is worth stepping back from the detail and looking at the bigger picture insofar as this contentious issue – if not fully debated and the government held to account – may have a serious effect on the long-term development of The Bahamas.

It is already widely accepted in this small country that foreign interests should not be allowed to dominate the local jobs market without adequate protection of the rights of the indigenous work force. Bahamians with the required qualifications and abilities should be afforded opportunities to secure employment in their own country in preference to equally well qualified foreigners; and it is right that government should put in place sensible immigration policies to help to secure this objective.

It is a truism, however, that politicians worth their salt should be aware that their approach to any particular issue at the national level, important though that issue may be, must be balanced against other no less important demands, so that judgments are made which are in the best interests of the country as a whole.

In this column on April 8, you quoted the FNM shadow immigration minister’s remarks that the government should not adopt immigration policies that might disrupt the way of life of ordinary Bahamians or interfere with the country’s conduct of business. But the government appears hell-bent on doing just that.

If it persists in pursuing its new restrictive policy, this will inevitably have a negative effect not only on commerce, industry and economic development but also on countless individual employers. Unreasonable restrictions on the right of a company to determine the nature of its own workforce will scare away foreign investors and affect the profitability of local businesses. This will lead, in time, to fewer job opportunities and more unemployment – a classic case of the law of unintended consequences.

This is not just carping by the opposition FNM. It is the view of a wide range of people in this country and it is baffling that leading politicians seem unable to grasp the bigger picture. Can they not see that, while it is their responsibility to protect the rights of Bahamians, this should be done in a careful and proportionate manner and measured against, for example, the continuing need to attract foreign investment?

They should face up to two important truths which the population as a whole understands only too well – first, the average Bahamian will not do so-called “dirty jobs” but aspires to something better with the result that foreigners have to be brought in at that level; and, secondly, until the education system is fixed so that young people come out of school with the requisite knowledge and skills to enable them to handle a job at a higher level, employers have to look elsewhere if their business is going to flourish.

We cannot escape the conclusion that the new immigration policy has not been thought through properly. It seems that the government is harking back to the Pindling years when the PLP sought the professional and economic empowerment of black Bahamians. This was overtly racist, though in many ways it was the right policy for the times and it succeeded. One has only to look at the range of senior positions that such Bahamians now hold in the financial, insurance and business sectors. But these represented the untapped cream of well-educated people who were equipped to aspire to such positions. Applying the same policies in relation to more menial labour is unrealistic.

By and large, intelligent and well-meaning Bahamians across the political and social spectrum want their leaders to show the maturity and self-confidence to accept that, in order to succeed in a globalised world, this nation must move away from parochialism and protectionism. Impending membership of the WTO will create new mandatory obligations and is a step in the right direction, but the country needs to open up more generally.

At this point in its development, The Bahamas has to diversify and expand its economy in order to prosper. Our political class should work out a sensible and effective means of utilising foreign know-how and labour – when there is a need to do so and it is to our advantage – while at the same time protecting the aspirations of the country’s own people.

There must surely be a better way of working towards this than making crude remarks about turning down work permits “cold turkey”.


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