By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
Baha Mar’s former expatriate staff yesterday slammed the discriminatory creditor payouts, and warned that the resort and the Bahamas “could face a PR nightmare if word of this leaks out”.
Peter Lisosky, the project’s former beverage operations manager, told Tribune Business that the manner in which he and 200 other expatriates had been treated “could never happen in the US” or other developed countries.
Speaking after the Supreme Court ruled that the sums owed to Baha Mar’s former foreign employees did not rank ahead of the China Export-Import Bank in the creditors’ queue, Mr Lisosky said creditors were treated equally - regardless of nationality - in liquidation/receivership type situations in his home country.
The Baha Mar creditor payouts, funded and overseen by the China Export-Import Bank, favoured former Bahamian staff and companies over their foreign counterparts, who are now at the mercy of the project’s $2.45 billion secured creditor as to whether they will receive any compensation.
Several former expatriate workers yesterday said they had talked about hiring an attorney to pursue the sums owed, but Mr Lisosky questioned whether this was merely ‘throwing good money after bad’.
“Am I better knowing what I now know about the Bahamas,” he asked rhetorically. “Am I better not taking the risk of going after the money? I think that might be the case.”
Mr Lisosky criticised the committee that oversaw the claims payout, on which the China Export-Import Bank and its Chinese allies held the majority, for stringing himself and other expatriate staff along over their claims.
“My take on the whole thing is that it was very disheartening when they first started doing the claims process, and were communicating with us: ‘We’re going to make a decision on your claim, and here’s the date’,” he recalled.
“They they would say: ‘We haven’t made a decision yet; we’ll make a decision on this date now’. That date came and went. They wouldn’t communicate with us at all, even by e-mail.
“James Smith [the committee’s chairman] promised at one stage we’d be getting a large figure or sum. He said that, and then stopped talking to us. I said: ‘I’ll believe it when I see it’.”
Mr Lisosky continued: “That just showed a total lack of respect; just for us as human beings. We were less than people. We certainly weren’t close to equal.”
Tribune Business reported on Tuesday how the treatment of the former expatriate staff, and their claims, could undermine the Bahamas’ reputation as a ‘safe’ jurisdiction for foreign direct investment (FDI) and workers to conduct business in.
The Baha Mar creditor payouts favoured former Bahamian staff, contractors and vendors, who received 100 per cent of what was due to them, while many foreign contractors, suppliers and vendors were offered ‘cents on the dollar’.
This was made possible because the payouts took place outside the formal Baha Mar provisional liquidation and receivership processes, and outside the purview of the Supreme Court.
China Export-Import Bank provided a $101 million fund to compensate Bahamian creditors, which was billed as an ‘ex-gratia’ payment - something it had no obligation to do, as the debts were liabilities of Baha Mar, not the secured creditor.
Such discrimination in favour of Bahamian creditors would not have been possible had the payments been conducted under the supervision of Supreme Court-appointed liquidators/receivers, as all - local and foreign - would have to be treated equally regardless of nationality.
Mr Lisosky picked up on this theme, telling Tribune Business: “That could never happen in the US. Regardless of where you are from, if you are an employee you are an employee, regardless of race, nationality, origin. We thought we were equal, but that’s obviously not the case.”
Besides wages, salaries and gratuities, this newspaper was told that the 200 expatriate staff’s claims include prior year bonuses, plus benefits such as vacation pay, sick pay and living expenses.
Some $3 million had been set aside to pay claims if the Supreme Court had ruled in favour of the employees, indicating the size of the compensation they may be entitled to. Most, if not all, the former expatriates would have occupied senior management and specialist skills positions, meaning their claims will be at the higher end of the scale.
Mr Lisosky said most had “by now absorbed” the financial blow, but were forced to dip into their savings, relocate and seek new jobs without the cushion of what they were owed by Baha Mar.
Another expatriate employee, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Tribune Business: “This thing is so overwhelming and confusing. We’ve talked about getting an attorney, but at this point we’ll take any money.
“There are almost 200 of us. We’re collectively owed a tremendous amount of money; it’s got to be in the millions. We worked for months in good faith with no pay. A lot of people weren’t paid their bonus from the previous year.”
Describing the financial impact as “terrible”, they added: “A big part of what was owed to us came out of our own pockets. Not only were we not getting a salary at the end, but we had to pay our own way home.
“When I moved to the Bahamas, I wanted to be there for years and years. My idea was to hire a group of Bahamians, and teach them what I learned from 25 years in the gaming industry.
“I trained my team as if they were my children. At the end of two-three years, they would have been able to go anywhere in the world and earn a living, putting their kids through college. We’re talking about generational wealth.”
The former employee accused the Government, especially the Christie administration, of “leaving us all in the lurch” when due compensation was not forthcoming following the October 2015 terminations of more than 2,000 Baha Mar staff.
“It cost $10,000 to $12,000 just to move all my stuff home,” they revealed. “Bahamians should be so much against discrimination, especially since the majority of the tourism industry in the Bahamas is out of the US.
“You would think they would have a little more consideration for their neighbours from the west. I think if more Americans knew how we were being treated by the Bahamian government and the owners of Baha Mar, they might be reluctant to spend their vacation dollars at Baha Mar.
“If word were to leak out, they might have a real PR nightmare on their hands.”
The former employee, though, was quick to emphasise that they did not want to harm Baha Mar or the employment prospects for thousands of Bahamians, many of whom they had been personally responsible for hiring and training.
Adding that they were prepared to reach a “compromise” over their claims, they added: “We don’t want Baha Mar to get a black eye because they didn’t pay us, but as word leaks out it’s going to look bad for Baha Mar.
“While we don’t have a very strong relationship with the new ownership, we have a relationship with the staff. Many of them working there were trained and hired by ourselves, and we want Baha Mar to succeed for the Bahamian people.”
The former employee said expatriate workers had found it difficult to hire a Bahamian attorney to represent them, as those approached had all backed away citing ‘conflicts’ because they had acted for Baha Mar in the past.
They added that the outstanding sums owed had created “a tremendous impact”, especially for expatriate staff who had families.
“We feel like we came there in good faith, in the true spirit of wanting to help the Bahamian people, and now the Bahamas government have really hung us out to dry, abandoned us and it’s really a slap in the face,” the former employee concluded.
The Supreme Court ruling means that the expatriate staff are now at the mercy of the China Export-Import Bank, and its goodwill, as to whether they will recover any of the money owed to them.
Mr Smith indicated to Tribune Business on Tuesday that some monies from the $101 million fund to compensate Bahamian creditors remain available, but that former expatriate staff were likely to receive ‘cents on the dollar’ at most.