By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
THE Government is proposing to exempt "certain categories of people" from needing short-term work permits when entering the Bahamas in a bid to eliminate border mishaps.
Brent Symonette, minister of financial services, trade and industry, and Immigration, told Tribune Business that a paper outlining the proposals would be sent to Cabinet "imminently" as the Government seeks to eliminate uncertainty surrounding entry requirements for persons entering the Bahamas to conduct short-term business. He explained that it was often left to the discretion of individual Immigration officers to determine whether such persons needed a work permit, which had resulted in incidents where executives arriving to give presentations to Cabinet ministers were detained for secondary screening.
Mr Symonette revealed that the Immigration Department currently receives around 200 applications per week for short-term visas and permits, creating "a large amount of paperwork" that could be reduced if this initiative is approved.
Private sector feedback has been sought on the "categories" of short-term workers who should be exempted from the permit requirement, with the initiative seen as improving the Bahamas' competitiveness and 'ease of doing business', plus sending the signal that this nation is open for commerce.
"The current policy is open to discretion at the Immigration port of entry in the country as to whether people require short-term work permits, no work permits or long-term work permits," Mr Symonette explained.
"The idea is that certain categories of people would be allowed to enter the Bahamas without needing short-term work permits. It's not to codify it, but to get it written down. Since I've been Minister, a director of an offshore company that does business here was detained at the airport for secondary screening when he came here to give a presentation to five Cabinet members."
Emphasising that "we don't want them held up", Mr Symonette said there had also been incidents where Immigration had refused persons entry unless they paid a fee for a short-term work permit.
"Because this policy is not written down, it's left to the discretion of Immigration," he reiterated, revealing that he was close to completing a "Cabinet paper for discussion" on the issue.
"It's going to Cabinet this week or next week," Mr Symonette told Tribune Business, adding that the Prime Minister will determine when it makes it on to Cabinet's full agenda.
The Minister said the proposed initiative stems from proposals and concerns raised by the Bahamas Financial Services Board (BFSB) in discussions with himself, and the private sector has been asked to suggest the worker "categories" which should be exempt from the short-term work permit requirements.
"There'll be certain classes put forward to the Government, to Cabinet, to approve," Mr Symonette said. "I don't want to discuss those classes because the Government might not accept all the classes that industry wants."
He implied, though, that high-level corporate executives visiting the Bahamas to inspect their company's investments, such as the owners of Atlantis and Baha Mar, would be among the priority classes for consideration.
Private sector sources backing the move were yesterday quick to point out that the proposed reforms would not undermine 'Bahamianisation' and local jobs, or take opportunities away from local professionals, as they only involved short-term work permits - not workers who would be in the Bahamas permanently.
One branded the proposal "low hanging fruit" that would signal the Bahamas is committed to a pro-growth, business friendly environment that facilitates the cross-border movement of people to conduct commerce.
Among the categories likely to be proposed are high-level corporate executives flying in to attend Board meetings and conferences of Bahamian subsidiaries; international clients coming in to meet with their bankers and/or attorneys; overseas employees from head offices; and the host of consultants, advisers, service providers and specialist technicians frequently required to offer short-term help to local firms.
Edison Sumner, the Bahamas Chamber of Commerce's chief executive, yesterday described the initiative as the 'Trusted Traveller programme' - an expression that was not used by Mr Symonette.
"It's a policy the Government is looking at," he explained. "We are still looking at the details and making assessments to give feedback to the Government.
"It's a programme that essentially allows persons coming in to conduct business in the short-term without having to apply to the Government for a work permit each time they come in."
Mr Sumner suggested it would be an "incentive for people to come into the country" if implemented, as incoming executives and other approved "categories" would know they could enter the Bahamas without any red tape, bureaucracy or other problems at the border.
Tribune Business sources suggested the Government's plans would help to clarify "a grey area" relating to short-term work permits, even though they praised the Immigration Department's co-operation in this area for typically ensuring there were few problems.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, they said Immigration approved such applications with as little as three-four days' notice, while persons entering for Board meetings and similar events were rarely asked to obtain a short-term work permit.
One source said "a lot" of the Bahamas' major competitors offered similar short-term entry programmes to the one now proposed, and argued that its implementation would generate "goodwill" and "make sense" for an economy heavily dependent on international services.
"It sends the right message," they told Tribune Business. "The messaging is good, it's consistent with our brand, makes us competitive and is consistent with the 'ease of doing business'.
"The optics are good, and this is no big threat to Bahamian professionals and executives as these are very short-term work permits. It's nice for businesses not to have the frustration, but this is more about the optics.
"The temporary work permits are not hard to get. This is one of the low hanging fruits where we can get a bigger bang for our buck, and the benefits are far greater than any disadvantage. It's making the process more modern, cleaning it up, making it more efficient and sending the right message."
The source added that it would also deal another blow to the perception that the Bahamas was a "restrictive" country, and instead indicate it was 'open for business'.
Private sector sources yesterday suggested that the Government had been advised to go even further and introduce an 'e-pass', where companies would pay an annual fee to facilitate the short-term entry of key foreign workers.
Mr Symonette, though, said an 'e-pass' was not involved in the Government's current thinking. He suggested, though that persons coming in for meetings could have "a specific line" at the airport.