By RICARDO WELLS
Tribune Staff Reporter
THE Grand Bahama Human Rights Association (GBHRA) yesterday urged the Office of the Attorney General to look into claims that employers at Baha Mar withheld the passports of foreign workers as a means of controlling their movement.
Deputy Prime Minister Philip ‘Brave’ Davis revealed in Parliament last week that Chinese nationals who entered the country to construct the $3.5bn Baha Mar resort had their passports and work permits withheld. Mr Davis suggested that this was done as a means to “control” the foreign labourers.
In a press statement, GBHRA officials said the notion that thousands of individuals could be victim to such a violation on Bahamian soil without action by law enforcement is unacceptable and must be “remedied immediately”.
The GBHRA called on the Office of the Attorney General to disclose the outcome of preliminary inquiries to the public and to launch a full investigation into the labour practices used during the project in question - Baha Mar.
“If what DPM Davis has said is true, there have been multiple clear violations of Trafficking in Persons Act, each of which carries a possible prison sentence of three to 10 years. The Office of the Attorney General must do its job without fear or favour and prove that no one is above the law,” the group’s statement read.
“The public must realise how serious this is. Unbeknownst to the vast majority of Bahamians, the construction of that resort may have placed this country at the crux of one of the most vexing and dangerous problems facing the international community today.
“The ILO have just passed a landmark Forced Labour Protocol and raising awareness of the issue was the theme of the United Nations’ most recent International Day in December 2016.
“The whole world is focused on combating modern day slavery, yet somehow, The Bahamas learns this vile practice has been going on, perhaps on a massive scale, on our shores and under our very noses. The government simply cannot allow this to pass unchallenged. They must demonstrate that the rule of law still exists in this country.
“We also call on Minister of Foreign Affairs and Immigration Fred Mitchell to defend our reputation abroad by announcing to the world that the government of The Bahamas will take urgent and definitive action on this issue and ensure that justice will be done,” said the GBHRA.
The group said forced labour is a form of modern day slavery that is widely condemned by the international community.
GBHRA noted that forced labour and human trafficking are key components in the practice of modern slavery that today affects almost 21 million people around the world, contending that almost 19 million of those victims are exploited by employers – just as has been claimed in the case of Baha Mar.
While debating an amendment, which is considered companion legislation to the Trafficking in Persons Act, Mr Davis said the Christie administration was “concerned” that the workers’ documents had been “held” from their possession.
In a later interview with The Tribune, Mr Davis explained that the discovery was made some time after the Christie administration took office in 2012, and several complaints were “looked into”.
He said that he was not aware of whether the practice has continued, adding that a formal investigation would only follow complaints made to the Department of Immigration.
As part of the Baha Mar deal, Parliament approved the issuance of 8,150 work permits for non-Bahamian construction workers, with a condition that no more than 5,000 permits would be utilised at any given time. Baha Mar’s general contractor is China Construction America.