By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
THE Government's 'fast-track' work permit process aims to remove bureaucratic obstacles to attracting "a large amount" of new industries to the Bahamas, a Cabinet Minister said yesterday.
Brent Symonette, minister of financial services, trade and industry and Immigration, told Tribune Business that the Commercial Enterprises Bill was part of "a larger plan" to revitalise the economy by boosting growth and Bahamian employment.
Emphasising that it was designed to eliminate over-regulation and "nuisances" to the 'ease of doing business', Mr Symonette said the 'fast track' process was targeted at specific industries identified by the Minnis administration as growth and job drivers.
While there is a heavy weighting towards financial services, the Minister said the Bill was focused on segments without a significant presence in the Bahamas. He hinted that international regulatory pressures would force this nation to adjust its financial services model to incorporate these sectors.
"This is part of our attempt to liberalise the economy to new business," Mr Symonette said of the Commercial Enterprises Bill. "This was part of our agenda. A lot of the industries in the schedule aren't here. "We're looking to increase employment opportunities and the economy in the Bahamas. It's also part of our 'ease of doing business'. We can't expect to attract new industries here and expect them to wait an extraordinarily long time for work permits. This, and other changes at Immigration, will affect the perception of doing business in the Bahamas."
The process contained in the Commercial Enterprises Bill, which was this week tabled in the House of Assembly for its first reading, allows senior foreign management and key personnel to enter the Bahamas and establish physical businesses - in the targeted industries only - without possessing a work permit.
The Bill, if passed into law as is, would enable a 'specified commercial enterprise' to obtain an Investments Board certificate granting it a specific number of work permits for certain positions. A special unit within the Investments Board, called the Commercial Enterprises Facilitation Unit, will be created to oversee this process.
The 'certificate', which will initially be issued for one year and can be renewed, would allow key personnel to set up the company's physical operations in the Bahamas before they obtained a work permit.
Such a permit must be applied for within 30 days of their entry, and the Bill mandates the Director of Immigration to make a decision on approval within 14 days of receiving the application. Should the Director not respond within that timeframe, the work permit is "automatically deemed to have been granted".
Work permits issued under the Bill's provisions will be for a three-year period, and are renewable for the same duration. They can only be revoked on grounds of "public safety, public morality or national security".
The legislation is thus designed to bring certainty and predictability to the work permit approval process, something often cited as a major impediment to the smooth conduct of commerce in the Bahamas.
The 'specified commercial enterprise' legislation is targeted at industries that are foreign exchange earners, and which have been cited by the Minnis administration as part of its economic growth and diversification strategy.
Financial services leads the way with reinsurance; captive insurance; investment fund administration; arbitration; wealth management; international trade and international arbitrage included in the 'fast track' work permit sectors.
Also listed in the Bill are technology-related industries such as computer programming; software design and writing; bioninformatics and analytics; nano technology; and biomedical health facilities.
The Government has targeted Grand Bahama as a technology hub, and the inclusion of 'boutique health facilities' on the 'fast track' list adds to the focus on health. Data storage and warehousing are also present, as is aviation registration and 'approved' aviation maintenance operations - again sectors that have been identified by the Minnis administration as potential growth drivers. The list is concluded by 'call centres' and manufacturing and assembly/logistics businesses.
Mr Symonette told Tribune Business yesterday: "The spin-off effects will be that managers and secretaries rent offices, buy cars, go to grocery stores..... the whole gambit.
"It [the Bill] goes along with other aspects of rationalising the Immigration process, which we've been working on, and the ease of doing business so that we can gradually get rid of some of the nuisances out there that get in people's way.
"These matters are being taken into consideration, and it all goes hand in hand. It's part of a larger plan that will become apparent going forward."
The Government's strategy is that through attracting new industries, the private sector and Bahamian economy will expand and create jobs once again. Their presence will boost employment and activity in other sectors, as 'a rising tide lifts all boats', and the Government will - in theory - see an increase in tax revenues, reduced deficits and less reliance on the public sector for jobs.
Mr Symonette said the Bill sought to safeguard Bahamians interests, as the focus on particular industries means not every expatriate will be able to enter the country without first possessing a work permit.
And, apart from a minimum $250,000 investment, companies applying for the 'specified commercial enterprise' status must produce a business plan detailing the training and knowledge-transfer opportunities for Bahamians.
"You can't come here and 30 years later be doing the same thing," Mr Symonette said. "You have to qualify staff locally and train Bahamians. If we see, in 15 years' time, a company still with 15 expatriates and no Bahamians, I don't have to say much. We'll know it has not achieved what it sought to achieve."
He suggested that the Bill also offered opportunities to diversify the financial services industry, which is under continuous tax and anti-money laundering pressures, away from its current model.
"We need to make sure the economy continues to grow, and you know better than I do that the financial services industry has been mired in the Common Reporting Standard (CRS) and the like, and countries are concerned about the future of their industries," Mr Symonette told Tribune Business.
"We have to make sure we diversify, and look at creative ways that bring new industries into the Bahamas to continue the employment of many Bahamians."
Mr Symonette said the Bill allows the Minister responsible, currently himself, to increase the number of eligible industries without having to go to Parliament.
He added that 'specified commercial enterprise zones' allowed the Government to designate specific incentive packages for businesses that elected to base themselves in specific locations outside Nassau and Freeport.