By KHRISNA RUSSELL
Deputy Chief Reporter
IN the face of criticism of the Commercial Enterprises Bill, Labour Minister Dion Foulkes “guaranteed” Bahamians that “not one single job” will be taken from them as a result of the law’s implementation.
He also said the Progressive Liberal Party is making a “big mistake” by standing against the legislation, which the opposition party has vowed to repeal if elected back into office.
The CEB, Mr Foulkes said, will not give businesses coming into the country complete freedom to do what they want, adding the government will do its due diligence and be careful to protect the best interests of Bahamians.
In his defence of the controversial bill, the minister was adamant there will be a limit on the number of work permits granted to foreigners who are expected to still be subject to various procedures of vetting as is the norm now. He suggested there would also be a limit on the number of permits granted per enterprise.
Mr Foulkes said as the world changes, the Bahamas must adapt. However, as it stands, he said the country has steadily lost its edge to other parts of the region.
In a press statement on Sunday, PLP Leader Philip “Brave” Davis said the party has warned investors and people who may accept the bill’s benefits to “think carefully” before doing so.
The bill passed the House of Assembly with unanimous support from the Free National Movement last week Wednesday and is up for debate in the Senate. It would liberalise the granting of work permits to enterprises that wish to establish themselves in the Bahamas in niche sectors and require work permits for management and key personnel.
“I can guarantee Bahamians that the Commercial Enterprise Bill will not take one single job from Bahamians,” the minister told reporters yesterday on the sidelines of the Citizen Security and Justice Programme launch at the Department of Labour’s headquarters.
“This bill is designed to attract new industries especially in the ICT area or the IT area to the Bahamas. It is also a bill to enhance and to create an economic environment to stop the slowdown in the growth of the financial services sector.
“We are losing a lot of business to other jurisdictions such as the Cayman Islands for example because of their ease of doing business and the rate at which they turn around applications for everything whether it’s business licences, work permits and we are determined to attract and to be the major player as we have been in the financial services industry. That is one of the main thrusts of this bill.”
Asked specifically about the opposition’s position on the bill, Mr Foulkes said: “I think the PLP is making a big mistake. This initiative will generate high paying jobs for Bahamians (and) for the working professionals in our country whether it is the financial services sector, whether they’re lawyers, whether they are accountants, whether they are special financial persons. That is what this is geared towards.
“So we have a limit on how many work permits can be issued for any particular enterprise and we will be monitoring that extremely closely.
“But the world is changing. We are becoming more globalised and the Bahamas so far we have been on the cutting edge of this charge and we want to make sure we stay there. But other jurisdictions are far ahead of us with respect to these matters and we are really catching up.”
The Bahamas Chamber of Commerce and Employers Confederation (BCCEC) has given a mixed reaction to the bill. It announced support for some provisions but listed concerns and suggested some components of the bill are unclear or contradictory.
The chamber characterised the bill as a possible “interim solution for businesses in certain industries with a foreign ownership component” that need to navigate the process of obtaining approvals and work permits.
The chamber said it supports the bill’s creation of a Commercial Enterprises Facilitation Unit, which would receive and consider applications “in a timely manner” and advise the Investment Board.
In response to the concerns, Mr Foulkes assured the business community that the intent of the bill is to supplement the provisions that are already in place, not to compete with or remove anything presently in operation.
“I know there are some concerns. Every application has to go through the normal process that we’re going through now with the Bahamas Investment Authority and the NEC [National Economic Council]. Every applicant has to be approved by the National Economic Council, which is a subcommittee of Cabinet of which I am a part along with seven, eight other Cabinet ministers.”
“So it isn’t a carte blanche for these enterprises coming in. The government will do their due diligence and we’d be very careful to protect the interest of Bahamians. That is what we got elected for and I can assure the business community if they have concerns that they need not have those concerns,” Mr Foulkes said.