By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
Super Value’s principal has warned he may have to close his paper manufacturing plant due to tariff cuts, as he called on the government to outline WTO’s benefits instead of attacking him.
Rupert Roberts, pictured, told Tribune Business he was surprised that the government’s chief World Trade Organisation (WTO) negotiator, Zhivargo Laing, has chosen to criticise the basis for his opposition to The Bahamas joining the rules-based trading regime rather than laying out the advantages of doing so.
Arguing that it was “imperative” that the Government make the case for The Bahamas’ accession to full WTO membership, Mr Roberts argued that its failure to do so to-date made him question whether it had something to hide.
And, while Mr Laing had pledged that the retail and wholesale sectors were “off the table” when it came to the WTO talks, as they were “reserved” areas for Bahamian ownership only, Mr Roberts argued there was little to no “trust” in government’s ability - and will - to maintain this.
Previous governments have already waived this restriction, two prime examples being Winn-Dixie’s long-running ownership of the City Markets food chain and the more recent acquisition of Bahamas Food Services (BFS), the largest food wholesaler, by US giant Sysco from another American company, Beaver Street Fisheries.
Mr Roberts, meanwhile, questioned whether recent tariff reductions were implemented as part of WTO membership preparations. He specifically pointed to the tariff cut involving imported paper, which was reduced from 45 percent to 25 percent in the 2017-2018 budget, and immediately impacted his plant that manufactures bathroom tissue for Super Value and its competitors.
“We had a 45 percent protective tariff on paper, bathroom tissue, and they took that down to 25 percent,” the Super Value chief recalled, adding that local manufacturing “employs a large number of Bahamians”.
“When they did that I should have shut the plant down. I’m now waiting for some profit and loss statement. If it’s not favourable I will have to shut it down and sell the equipment.”
Mr Laing told this newspaper on Friday that he and every member of the Government’s negotiating team was “keenly aware” of the need to ensure the “viability” of Bahamian manufacturers and farmers post-WTO accession, with the strategy being to maintain or increase tariffs on imported rivals while still achieving the WTO’s mandated 15 percent average rate.
“I texted the minister this morning,” Mr Roberts added. “If Laing is serious he should give us the protective tariff back on paper before I close the plant..... Surely the intend to keep the manufacturing rather than wipe it out.
“If they did, maybe bleach would sell for a little bit less and imported water would sell for half the price if they took the tariff off. But I’m not advocating for that. We need to create this local labour.”
Mr Laing on Friday had told Tribune Business that Mr Roberts’ opposition to The Bahamas joining the WTO was founded on “illusion and fiction”, and had little to no basis in fact.
But the Super Value chief, emphasising that he had nothing personal against the former Cabinet minister, questioned why Mr Laing had focused on responding to him rather than trying to sell the private sector and Bahamians on the merits of full WTO membership.
“He still did not enumerate the benefits in his criticism,” Mr Roberts told Tribune Business. “I’m surprised he criticised me. I gave him the opportunity to enumerate the benefits of WTO, and he didn’t. He had another opportunity to outline the benefits and passed that up to criticise somebody that didn’t agree with him.”
Calling on the Government to make the case for WTO membership, he added: “It is imperative that they do that. It has to be done. The Government has to show the people. It’s surprising, and makes you think there’s some sort of trick in the wind because they’ve not come forward and enumerated the benefits of WTO. They’re just saying: ‘Join, join, join, join.”
While Mr Laing had promised that the retail and wholesale industries were not included in the WTO negotiation accessions, Mr Roberts said current investment policy had been waived so often that few believed the terms would be set with no changes.
“The element of trust is not there,” he told Tribune Business, pointing to the City Markets and Bahamas Food Services situations. “There was even a referendum where the Government did the opposite to the result. How can we trust it? I’d rather not go there, and something changes and goes against you.
“I’m not for it because I don’t know anything about it [WTO], but what I know about I don’t want.”