By RASHAD ROLLE
Tribune Staff Reporter
GOWON Bowe, president of the Bahamas Institute of Chartered Accountants, warned yesterday against xenophobic reactions to the Minnis administration’s Commercial Enterprises Bill even as he criticised the government for not consulting Bahamians more widely on it.
The bill, which was passed in the House of Assembly Wednesday and will now be debated in the Senate, aims to liberalise the granting of work permits to enterprises that wish to establish themselves in The Bahamas and require work permits for management and key personnel.
Enterprises like those concentrating on arbitration and wealth management services would benefit from the law if they meet an investment threshold of at least $250,000. The bill empowers the relevant minister, however, to expand the list of enterprises to which the law would apply.
Critics like the Progressive Liberal Party say the bill would exacerbate inequalities in this country while benefiting foreigners over Bahamians.
“We have to spur economic activity,” Mr Bowe countered yesterday when contacted by The Tribune. “We cannot have xenophobia in the country. We cannot have it where we want their investments but not their labour, where we say bring your money but not your talent. There is a need to make sure that we are open to expanding the economy.”
As for concern that the benefits from the regime created won’t trickle down to many Bahamians, Mr Bowe said such criticism ignores why there are inequalities and said it’s best to grow the economy than to have no growth at all.
“We look at the wrong root cause,” he said. “Why is there economic inequality or disparities? Are we training our Bahamian persons to take on high skill jobs and opportunities that come along when some of these centres come in the country? We forget that we have an immigration policy that says that for every expatriate permit granted there should be an understudy. That’s not picking up any person off the street and saying ‘I have people who are skilled in the area and qualified as an understudy.’ To say that this will contribute to greater disparities in terms of economic level, the question is, if you have no economic activity, is that going to solve the disparity? With no new business, new enterprises or commercial activity, is that gong to help solve the problem? We have to have commercial activity and prepare people to take advantage of that by getting the skills necessary.”
Mr Bowe emphasised that the bill must come as part of wide reform.
“We have to be careful not to put a Band-Aid on a cancer,” he said. “Are we doing small pieces of it as opposed to looking at overall immigration reform? Are we modifying the system to ensure people who will bring economic immigrants and capital resources and expertise are treated differently from immigrants coming here because it is a better place to be? We ought to be doing wider reform.”
Mr Bowe also said the bill appears to have been rushed through the legislative process.
“It’s this political arrogance,” he said, “the belief that you bring legislation and people will just jump behind it as opposed to dealing with concerns before tabling it so that dialogue could be finished and you could have a majority of supporters in the end. It’s come across as being done in a very swift manner and I don’t know that dialogue and consultation with key stakeholders took the time that it should have. If it were done with financial services, construction, the Investment Authority then they should be coming out more vocally in support of it as opposed to having this deterioration into a political argument about whether it puts Bahamians first or not. That’s where politicians go. Those who are in power will support it and those who are in opposition will say it’s sponsoring foreigners as opposed to Bahamians.
‘You may never get everyone to be in full agreement with this but when you just table it before wider consultations you start this sort of debate and cause this kind of emotional roller coaster,” Mr Bowe said.