By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
THE Commercial Enterprises Bill must not operate "to the detriment of Bahamian businesses", the Chamber of Commerce's chief executive warned yesterday, while rejecting claims it undermines 'Bahamianisation'.
Edison Sumner told Tribune Business that the Government needed to ensure Bahamian-owned companies could compete on a 'level playing field' with foreign rivals, and be able to access the same incentives - especially the 'fast track' work permit approvals - provided for in the Bill. While backing the legislation's progressive and innovative intent, Mr Sumner said the Minnis administration was looking for "volume and quality" in attracting foreign-owned businesses to domicile in the Bahamas through reducing the minimum investment threshold to $250,000.
The Government is hoping it may attract an eventual Google or Microsoft-type technology firm to base themselves in the Bahamas as a start-up, but the Chamber chief executive warned that the $250,000 threshold may be "inequitable" when set alongside the challenges Bahamian companies have to overcome.
The Bill's passage through the House of Assembly has provoked near-hysteria in some political quarters, with former PLP chairman and Cabinet minister, Bradley Roberts, branding it "the death of Bahamianisation" amid fears that a wave of foreign workers and companies will push out Bahamian professionals and entrepreneurs. The Minnis administration, though, has argued that the Bill largely targets high margin, technology and financial services-based businesses that are largely not present in the Bahamas, and Mr Sumner said he did "not see that as undermining Bahamianisation".
"I think it's primarily a case where we're focusing on international companies to come in, but it should not be to the detriment of Bahamian businesses," he told Tribune Business.
"The Bahamian business still represents the bedrock of the economy, and we have to do everything to ensure they thrive and, where they're having challenges, they overcome them so they make meaningful contributions to the growth of the economy."
Arguing that the Commercial Enterprises Bill's incentives should also be available to Bahamian-owned businesses in the same industries, Mr Sumner suggested the sectors under the legislation should "be looked at again to ensure they are fine-tuned and cover the areas we think will help us to diversify and bring in new jobs, industries and innovation and ideas".
The Government has said the Bill's provisions apply to Bahamian-owned firms and joint ventures, although the language does not specifically say so. Mr Sumner revealed that the Chamber and private sector had not been consulted or seen the legislation before its tabling in the House of Assembly, although they had been made aware a Bill was coming.
He added that the timelines and legal obligations imposed on the Department of Immigration for the granting of work permits should be extended "across the board" to other government departments and services, such as those that dealt with Business License fees and real property taxes.
"I'm hopeful we can see a similar situation and timelines applied on other government agencies and services as well," Mr Sumner told Tribune Business. "The Bill is being introduced to assist with the ease of doing business on one hand, but it's also to attract more foreign companies into the Bahamas to establish commercial enterprises.
"We think $250,000 [as a minimum investment threshold] is reasonable for Bahamian businesses, but may be undervalued for foreign ones. The Government is looking for volume and growth. They're looking for companies that might find business in other jurisdictions too restrictive, and if they lower the capital requirements hopefully they will come in.
"Putting the Bahamian business on the same level, having to come up with the same $250,000 to get the same benefits, we think is inequitable. That's because the Bahamian business is already here trying to do business in the economy. We think the amount for foreign investors and Bahamian investors should be different, as we're trying to incentivise Bahamian businesses as well."
Mr Sumner suggested that the Government "reconsider" and impose a lower investment threshold for Bahamian businesses, which were already at a competitive disadvantage against their foreign counterparts when it came to capital access and cost, and "struggling to make ends meet" in a sluggish domestic economy.