By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
The Immigration Department’s “closed door” work permit policies are exacerbating the Bahamas’ productivity crisis, a top private sector executive yesterday warning they were making it impossible for companies to hire the “unemployable”.
Robert Myers, the immediate past Bahamas Chamber of Commerce and Employers Confederation (BCCEC) chairman, told Tribune Business that restrictive Immigration policies were preventing businesses from recruiting middle management and skilled line staff essential to their smooth operation.
Apart from hindering the ability of local companies to expand, Mr Myers said they were also prevented from improving staff productivity and efficiency, as they could not “hire the educated to train the uneducated”.
Jerome Fitzgerald, minister of education, admitted last week that 40 per cent of the workforce lacked “a basic education”, with at least 35-38 per cent having failed to graduate from high school.
Mr Myers, though, pegged the number of high school leavers who were functionally illiterate and numerate at 55 per cent - a statistic that continues to limit business and GDP growth, and hinder government tax revenues.
“There’s a problem because the Immigration policies are only enabling these problems,” he told Tribune Business. “We have the wrong Immigration policies.
“There’s a desperate need to hire the educated to educate the uneducated and undereducated. We need to relax the Immigration policies, and do it with educated, not uneducated, people.
“The only way you can go out and hire this massive chunk in the economy is to bring in educated people capable of training those uneducated.”
Mr Myers said the Bahamas should tailor its work permit policies to reward, and incentivise, those companies who brought in expatriates to help train Bahamian staff.
“People like myself who could grow their businesses can’t, because it is cost prohibitive to bring in quality managers and line staff,” he told Tribune Business.
“It’s a layering effect. In order for me to grow and get uneducated people working, you need to bring in educated people.
“But you’ve made it so cost prohibitive to bring in line staff and middle managers, you’ve made it so expensive, that if I try to do that I become uncompetitive. So I can’t bring them in, and can’t hire uneducated people.”
Mr Myers said the Christie administration needed to “understand the connectivity of all this”, describing it as “reasonably complex but not rocket science”.
Arguing that the issue went to the heart of the Bahamas’ social fabric, he added: “If you have the wrong Immigration policies, you can’t improve education, the transfer of knowledge, employment and GDP growth. Crime goes up, and the uneducated are left to their own devices.”
Numerous Bahamian businesses have in the past complained to Tribune Business about what they have labelled “a dearth” of middle management talent in this nation, leaving them unable to fill positions essential to their smooth functioning with the right people.
However, in a bid to create employment for Bahamians, in a society struggling with a high 15.7 per cent jobless rate, the Immigration Department has tightened its work permit policies despite fears in some quarters it is trying to force ‘square pegs into round holes’ - forcing companies to take on unsuitable persons.
And several in the private sector have also suggested that it sometimes requires the hiring of one expatriate worker to create jobs for 10 or more Bahamians.
Mr Myers yesterday told Tribune Business that it was “so frustrating” that persons like himself and Mr Fitzgerald understood the problems, yet the Immigration Department was operating policies that were “completely contradictory” to the necessary solutions.
“When you have these problems lined up, teed up in education, crime and growth, stop making it more expensive for the educated to come in and teach the uneducated,” he added.
“Why does the Government not step in, and make it more competitive for businesses, increase the ease of doing business, increase GDP growth.
“I understand you’re trying to shut down Immigration to create employment, but these people are unemployable unless you open Immigration.”
Suggesting that Mr Fitzgerald’s comments, and Immigration policies, showed the Government’s ‘left hand and right hand’ did not know what each was doing, Mr Myers said the Bahamas’ “lack of governance is causing us to sink further”.
In a position paper he shared with Tribune Business yesterday, Mr Myers admitted that some businesses had resorted to hiring illegal Haitians in a bid to find productive workers for low income jobs.
“The Haitian workforce has also had a negative affect on businesses, as the Haitian workers are not always English literate, thus creating the same training and mobility problems for growth and development of businesses,” the ex-BCCEC chairman wrote.
“The Department of Immigration’s policies have caused further burden to businesses as they attempt to create more employment for Bahamians. While this may seem like a positive policy, it in fact negatively impacts Bahamian businesses for all the above said reasons and decreases productivity, making the Bahamas a more expensive and a less competitive nation.
“National security is at risk as we see direct correlations between the failing educational system and increases in violent crimes and drugs. The uneducated will fall victim to illegal activity if they have no hope or ability to become productive members of our society. People with no hope turn to drugs, in many cases for temporary relief. Our choices become one of two: Provide better education or build more courts, police stations and jails.”