By RASHAD ROLLE
Tribune Staff Reporter
WITH the employment of thousands of Baha Mar workers hanging in the balance, negotiators ended a protracted second day of talks in China without a deal to push the project forward, Tourism Minister Obie Wilchcombe said.
Mr Wilchcombe told The Tribune that government officials were still awaiting word on the status of the negotiations up to press time yesterday after the second day of meetings with representatives from Baha Mar, the Bahamian government, China State Construction and China Export-Import Bank had started around 9.30am.
Mr Wilchcombe said the stakeholders were still at the negotiation table at 2am in China, over 15 hours later.
Meanwhile, Baha Mar officials, seeking to address workers’ concerns about their employment future, posted detailed messages on their official website concerning its most recent US bankruptcy court filing, which reveals that the resort would drastically reduce its workforce to a “skeleton” crew of around 50 if an agreement cannot be secured soon.
“They’re meeting as I speak,” Mr Wilchcombe said after yesterday’s Cabinet meeting. “Two am in the morning (China time) they’re still meeting. They’re just sitting at the table. They’re working.”
Following a closed status hearing between key representatives in the Supreme Court yesterday, State Minister for Legal Affairs Damian Gomez also confirmed that officials were still awaiting word on the status of the negotiations.
“The status hearing, at the time, the parties appeared to be in good faith negotiations,” he said. “I haven’t been able to hear what’s happened since then. That’s where we are.”
And as Cabinet ministers left the Churchill Building on Bay Street yesterday afternoon, Prime Minister Perry Christie stayed behind, waiting on a call from China about the negotiations.
During an appearance on KISS FM radio show Ed Fields Live on Monday, Mr Christie had said a failure to secure a Baha Mar deal on Tuesday would result in a “very, very serious situation”.
Mr Christie, without divulging details, said that in the event that negotiators fail to reach an agreement, his government has an alternative plan to get the project back on track.
His statement came days after Baha Mar filed court documents in the United States, revealing the extent of its radical downsizing plans in the absence of an agreement.
Baha Mar, the documents show, plans to reduce its workforce of more than 2,000 workers to just 50 key employees needed to run a “skeleton operation” if it is unable to resolve the dispute with its Chinese partners by next Monday.
On its official website, Baha Mar noted that its July 10 court filing detailing such plans does not mean that workers will be laid off at this time.
“While Baha Mar is making every effort to achieve a breakthrough in these negotiations in hopes of completing construction in the near term, if no meaningful progress is made, Baha Mar will be forced to make immediate and difficult decisions regarding its workforce as we seek alternative paths to complete the resort,” the resort said.
As for whether its decision to file such a motion reflects a lack of optimism in the Chapter 11 process, Baha Mar said: “We are confident that if we were able to reach a consensual agreement with the involved parties we would be able to complete construction and open the resort in the near term. The July 10 filing date was set by the US Court at our initial hearing on July 1, and that is why the filing was made on such date.”
Baha Mar also noted that it asked the court to “approve measures to enable a specific group of citizens to assist with the wind-down of their respective operations over a 45 to 60 day period (Group B), and an additional very small team to manage the wind-down and operate the remaining businesses until construction of the resort is complete (Group A), positioning Baha Mar to be able to quickly come back up to speed – and full employment strength – at that time.”
Group A includes 52 employees while Group B includes 47 employees, Baha Mar said. Court documents reveal that Group B would ultimately be terminated.
Attorney General Allyson Maynard-Gibson is leading the government delegation to China for the talks. Monday and Tuesday were the only days scheduled for the meetings and the delegation is expected to return on Thursday.
Baha Mar filed for bankruptcy in the United States last month.