By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
THE Government has been urged by a governance reformer to extend its 'fast track' work permit process to all Bahamian-owned businesses and industries suffering from "a skills gap".
Robert Myers, a principal with the Organisation for Responsible Governance ORG), told Tribune Business that the provisions contained in the Commercial Enterprises Bill were "a good start" and "first step" towards liberalising the Bahamian economy.
The Bill, if passed into law as is, would enable expatriate management and specialist professionals belonging to firms in 'targeted industries' to enter the Bahamas without first obtaining a work permit.
However, Mr Myers, himself a businessman, urged that the Commercial Enterprises Bill be non-discriminatory, and that its 'fast track' work permit provisions be extended to Bahamian-owned and local businesses unable to find essential workers in this country.
Arguing that there was a dearth of "middle management" talent and upward mobility within the 200,000-plus Bahamian workforce, the ORG principal blamed this on an inadequate education system and wider society failings that had failed to properly prepare persons for the rigours of a 21st century workforce.
"I think that's a start," Mr Myers told Tribune Business of the Commercial Enterprises Bill. "They need to get some of the hurdles out of the way with foreign, local and domestic businesses.
"It's a good, strong step. But if they [the Government] wanted to be forward thinking and progressive in the way their doing things, include industries where there is a gap in skills.
"Liberalise the Immigration system more so that you don't make it do difficult and expensive for businesses to grow and want to come to the Bahamas. Find out where the skills gaps are and open it up, and you will get growth," he added.
"The way to improve the economy is not to tax it harder, but make it easier to grow. Increasing Immigration costs makes it harder to grow. Decreasing it, liberalising it, making it easier to grow; we've got to create pro-growth policies to get the economy going."
The Commercial Enterprises Bill is chiefly targeted at foreign exchange earners perceived as involving high levels of foreign direct investment (FDI), 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.
The Commercial Enterprises Bill, and its 'fast track' work permit process, have also likely been restricted to certain industries so that the Government can escape any political and electorate fall-out.
Immigration, and the granting of work permits, remains an emotive topic for many Bahamians, but Mr Myers said his call to expand the Bill's provisions did not mean he was advocating an 'Open Sesame' for all expatriate workers.
"I'm not saying we need to start bringing in people to work in the retail sector on the floor," he explained, "but if its expansion hands on finding a store manager and none suitably qualified are available locally, there is a skills deficiency and the store won't grow."
"In our opinion, there's a significant shortage [of labour] because of education," Mr Myers continued, "the problems the core education system has created over the decades.
"There's a significant problem in the middle management segment, and there just aren't enough people to gain upward mobility because there is such a deficiency in the education system. The deficiencies in productive and qualified labour stem from the education system.
"We applaud the Government's actions, but let's make it [the Bill] broader than the foreign-owned companies. Identify the skills gaps, and get started."
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.
Mr Myers emphasised that the Bahamas needed to improve both the cost and ease of doing business, expressing concerns about the Government's intention to review existing work permits with a view to possible increases.
He said the focus on financial services was commendable given that the industry is "already under stress", but argued that the Minnis administration actions needed to take reforms beyond the Commercial Enterprises Bill to achieve the 5.5 per cent GDP growth rate cited by the IMF as critical to absorbing all new workforce entrants and cutting the unemployment rate in half.
"It's tinkering at the edges. That's not going to get us where we need to be," Mr Myers said of the Bill, although he described the assertion by Brent Symonette, minister of financial services, trade and industry and Immigration, that it was part of 'a wider plan' as "great news".
"If he said that, let's roll it out," Mr Myers said of Mr Symonette. "Let's hear it. Let's go. We'd be so, so happy to see it. Let's see it in action. Local and foreign, Bahamian and foreign, bring them in and pay less for permits."
He added that increased economic growth and employment would come from the private sector, not Moody's or the IMF, and improved consumer and business confidence that the Bahamas was "heading in the right direction".
"If the goal is to drive employment and growth, then we want to make it easier to do just that," Mr Myers said. "Liberalise the Immigration system, because it's going to allow for greater growth, and the more activity businesses can generate, the more unemployment will come down.