By NEIL HARTNELL
and NATARIO McKENZIE
Tribune Business Reporters
Businesses yesterday blasted the "really disgraceful" collapse of The Bahamas' postal system for "killing our economy", with some revealing they only received February's mail yesterday.
Anthony Howorth, a well-known financial services provider, told Tribune Business that high net worth foreign clients and their intermediaries likely viewed The Bahamas as "a third world country" because their mailings and requests received no reply for three months.
And Edison Sumner, the Bahamas Chamber of Commerce and Employers Confederation's (BCCEC) chief executive, disclosed that he knew of Bahamian businesses who had purchased Florida mail boxes and were travelling to the US on a weekly basis as a costly, time-consuming alternative to beating the postal shutdown.
Their renewed concerns came as Kingsley Ferguson, the Bahamas Public Service Union's (BPSU) president, yesterday confirmed that The Bahamas' postal service has effectively come to a "halt" over the unhealthy, unsafe conditions at the main Post Office building on East Hill Street.
Responding to claims by some businesses that post office workers have gone on strike, Mr Ferguson denied this but said staff had been directed to work from substations - a situation he described as virtually useless because everything relied on the headquarters building.
Revealing the extent of his frustration, Mr Howorth described the situation - which has been known for months - as getting worse rather than better based on the ordeal he suffered.
"I was eventually able to get my mail yesterday from the back room where it was put with the parcel collection entries," he told Tribune Business. "Some of it was dated from April, and some of it was dated from February.
"It's really disgraceful. I can't understand why the business people on this island accept that we have a Post Office that doesn't work at all. It's terrible. I'm getting letters requesting documents to be signed by my clients dated February, from Switzerland, for example. They must think that we're a third world country that doesn't reply until three months later."
Mr Howorth said he had personally witnessed persons queuing for an hour outside the Post Office until it opened at 11am, hoping cheques and other payments had arrived in the mail or that they could access the Post Office's savings bank.
Pointing out that Bahamian taxpayers were paying for a service that was not being provided, he added: "It's not good enough. I don't understand why the Chamber of Commerce is putting up with it and the public is not complaining about it."
Mr Howorth suggested there were numerous unused, empty buildings in the downtown Nassau area that could be used for a makeshift Post Office rather than wait for it to be relocated to the former Phil's Food Services building on Gladstone Road.
Acknowledging that many businesses, and individual Bahamians, had turned to e-mail and the Internet as alternatives to the postal system when conducting business, he argued that the latter was still needed to receive bank statements and billings, plus send invoices.
"It's really killing our economy," Mr Howorth told Tribune Business. "There were people up there expecting shipments of product to put in their stores, and one lady said she can't rely on the post.
"She was trying to pick up a parcel, they couldn't find it, and she said it would have to be re-sent through FedEx and cost her a lot more. The cost and ease of business is getting worse and worse."
Priscilla Hudson, a financial services worker, told Tribune Business: "We have not received any mail for my own post office box or my job, an offshore bank. I inquired about it because it was very unusual and concerning for a business, in particular, not to have one piece of mail posted. I also followed up because we have invoices due. I have been very cornered about this. There are people expecting very important mail to be delivered."
She added: "When I inquired about what was happening I was told about the condition of the Post Office building, and that the mail sits in the main building and no one is coming to sort the mail out because there is an ongoing strike. As long as that dispute is not solved there will be no mail deliveries, I was told.
"I have not seen anything recently to make the public aware of this situation. We have bills to pay individually, and I am sure businesses are being affected. I understand the reasons for the strike and the fact that the building has issues, but how can customers not get regular mail delivered? Today, everything affects the bottom line. This issue has to be resolved."
Mr Sumner acknowledged that the postal system breakdown was "still a concern, still an issue that persists", although the Chamber had not received "as many complaints in recent times".
Calling for the Government to address the situation "immediately", Mr Sumner said the postal system needed to operate more efficiently - possibly through a public-private partnership (PPP) where a private company took over responsibility for the Post Office's operations and management.
He revealed that former minister of transport, Frankie Campbell, had given a presentation to the recent National Chambers of Commerce conclave and reassured that the Government was "working towards correcting the postal system in the country".
There has been little tangible sign of this yet, and Mr Sumner acknowledged that it was disrupting commerce in the Bahamas despite the shift to electronic communications alternatives.
"There's still a heavy reliance on having the hand delivery of mail, which is causing people to look at alternative means," he told Tribune Business. "People are setting up mail boxes in Florida, and they are flying over there once a week to bring mail back into the country.
"It's far from ideal, but when you have a company to run you cannot wait on the mail. There's payments caught up in the mail, important documents caught up in the mail, so companies are only doing what is necessary."
Mr Sumner said the impact in the Family Islands was far worse, and he argued that the Government could not wait on the move to the Phil's Food Services property as this was a long-term fix.
He suggested attention needed to be paid on fixing the flaws at the main Post Office building, adding: "When I was there several weeks ago, paying for my box and an existing service, I could not stay in there for more than 15 minutes. It was hot, humid and there was an awful scent."
The BPSU's Mr Ferguson told Tribune Business: "The workers are not on strike, but it was the decision of the minister to move persons from the general Post Office because of the working environment. They have now been directed to work from the substations.
"However, nothing can be done without the inclusion of the general post office because that is where everything is disseminated from. The workers are just there. The general Post Office is closed, Cable Beach is closed and South Beach is in a terrible condition, although persons are there. We are trying to get the situation there rectified because they are without water and air-conditioning, and the number of persons there have now increased. That's where we are now."
Mr Ferguson added: "The postal service has basically come to a standstill. No Family Islands can receive any mail because it's normally disseminated from the general Post Office. The actual savings bank that assists persons in the Family Islands to receive funding has been closed as well.
"The workers just show up to work. We have been trying to get a response from the minister on what will happen moving forward, and how quickly we can have it resolved, so persons can really get back to work. The minister was unable to give us a definitive response."
The Tribune reported back in May that the government had taken legal possession of the old Phil's Food Services building on Gladstone Road, which was to be renovated for the General Post Office's relocation.
"My understanding is they have taken possession of that building, but since that time someone has vandalised the building and whatever the cost to refurbish it for the Post Office has now been increased," said Mr Ferguson.