By MORGAN ADDERLEY
Tribune Staff Reporter
THE Straw Business Persons Society yesterday called for the Nassau Straw Market to be removed from the portfolio of Works Minister Desmond Bannister.
During a press conference, SBPS President Rev Esther Thompson and Vice President Rebecca Small also issued a challenge to Mr Bannister in the wake of the minister's comments that Straw Market vendors owe thousands of dollars in rent.
They also expressed their belief that Mr Bannister has a "personal beef" with the vendors.
"The first thing we want to do is request that the prime minister remove the Straw Market from this current minister's portfolio," Rev Thompson said.
"And our reason is…straw vendors feel like this present minister has a personal beef against the vendors."
On Sunday, Mr Bannister told The Tribune that there are vendors who have not paid rent for "three, four years." He added that such a backlog makes it difficult for the Straw Market Authority (SMA) to find a way for the Straw Market to exist.
However, the SBPS board members, supported by Englerston MP Glenys Hanna Martin, said since this administration took office, it has "demanded" that rent arrears be $200 or less.
Following Mr Bannister's comments, Ms Small said earlier this week, SBPS conducted a survey of the 300 vendors currently working in the Straw Market. Ms Small said their findings reveal that 85 percent of vendors have debts that are less than $200.
She added that 25 percent of vendors have a zero balance.
With these results, SBPS is challenging the works minister to produce a public report listing the current vendors who owe more than $200 and less than this figure.
In a statement, Rev Thompson said that vendors "have not received an annual audited report from the inception of the newly built market".
"We want the minister to (provide) an accurate total of revenue collected from the straw vendors from the period July 1, 2017, to the present," she said.
"The minister is on record saying that the market can't function and the question is why," she asked. "We believe it may be because of a lack of accountability and poor management by his team."
The SBPS board members also hit out at the SMA, decrying the "hostile and vindictive approach" they say the body uses with vendors.
According to SBPS, when vendors attempt to make payments concerning their rent arrears, the SMA rejects all figures that are below the full amount.
"In several cases vendors brought half or three quarters of what they owed and still (were) rejected," Rev Thompson said.
Despite it being the administrative procedure to open a vendor's stall on the same day the vendor has brought their rent balance to zero, the SBPS members said the SMA "(breaks) the rules on a regular basis" and makes the vendors wait until the next business day to resume operations.
These actions, SBPS said, contribute to the financial struggles of the Straw Market.
As a result of these experiences, the organisation is calling for the prime minister and deputy prime minister to intervene.
Mrs Hanna Martin described the plight of the vendors as "heartbreaking".
"It's absolutely heartbreaking what's happening in the Straw Market," she said.
She also criticised Mr Bannister for invoking a "political message" by suggesting that these arrears of the straw vendors were allowed to accumulate between 2012 and 2017.
"And so obviously you're sending a political message when you do that," she said. "And so we have to put a spotlight on that, because it has nothing to do with that. Secondly, the level of rents (is) being highlighted."
According to SBPS, the vendors pay $35 per week in rent, which totals to $39.20 with the recent value added tax increase.
"They talk about the small rents these people are paying," Ms Hanna Martin continued. "Well, they're small business people. It might seem small to someone else, but for them, it's creating challenges in the economic environment."
The Englerston MP described the approach taken by Mr Bannister as "bullying," highlighting that this is an historical, generational industry which is led primarily by women. She also was critical of the "deplorable" conditions of the Straw Market, referring to the lack of proper lighting and ventilation.
"And so I have a major concern about the approach that's being taken…We just came out of the budget debate. The law was changed to provide tax breaks to foreign oil companies in Grand Bahama. That's your right.
"But how could you on the one hand have such a facilitative attitude to foreign, big, big billion dollar investors, but your historic industry of women, self-made entrepreneurs, generational, part of the history of our country, and you would take such a brutish approach to the vendors?
"That inconsistency is disturbing to me, very disturbing to me."
Mrs Hanna Martin also called for Mr Bannister to "sit with the leadership" of SBPS to collaborate on finding resolutions for these issues.