By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
Requiring seven-year work permit holders to leave The Bahamas for one year before an employer can reapply for their return is “not investment positive”, the government has been warned.
Jeffrey Beckles, pictured, the Chamber of Commerce’s chief executive, told Tribune Business that this element of the proposed Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Bill threatens to undermine Bahamian and foreign investor confidence at a time when The Bahamas needs to enhance its ability to attract capital investment.
While placing a maximum seven-year limit on how long work visas (permits) can be granted for posed no problems, Mr Beckles said mandating that key employees effectively take a year’s sabbatical before they can return to The Bahamas would disrupt business continuity, operations and - potentially - further hirings and expansions by companies.
The concerns centre on the Bill’s section 105, which deals with “term limits on work visas”. It proposes a maximum seven-year limit on work visas, whether they are renewed annually or one is granted for the full term, with the clock running from the date when the expatriate employee first entered The Bahamas - either as a visitor or to work.
While foreign workers coming and going on short-term work visas are exempt, the Bill’s section 105 (3) adds: “Upon the expiration of the term limit set by subsection (1), and whether such visas are granted and held continuously or not, the worker shall leave The Bahamas and shall not be eligible for the grant or renewal of a work visa until he has ceased to hold a work visa for not less than a year after he has left The Bahamas.”
Given that Brent Symonette, minister of financial services, trade and industry and Immigration, on Tuesday said the Bill’s release into the public domain was “premature”, it remains to be seen whether this proposal survives in its current form.
Mr Beckles, speaking prior to Mr Symonette’s announcement, said the enforced “sabbatical” - rather than the seven-year work visa limit - had caused most concern among the Chamber and private sector.
“If it’s seven years at a time it’s far better than what we have now,” he told Tribune Business. “I don’t see it as creating an issue.” However, when it came to the enforced departure after seven years, Mr Beckles added: “That needs to be looked at.
“When you start talking about leaving for a year, and when you start talking about investment dollars and investor confidence, I don’t see it as a positive thing.... At the end of the day, The Bahamas needs to advance its attraction to the global investment community rather than take away from it.”
An enforced one-year absence is likely to be especially problematic for high-level expatriates that act as the “owner’s representative”, and hold positions such as president, managing director and chief executive, where their employer will not want to lose such valuable and skilled employees.
Robert Myers, the Organisation for Responsible Governance’s (ORG) principal, told Tribune Business there was “a massive disconnect” between education and Immigration on one side, and the private sector on the other, as companies were frequently forced to seek expatriate management to enable them to train and hire “under educated” Bahamians.
“We don’t have a robust public education system that prepares people for the workforce. Seventy percent of kids leaving public school get a ‘D-’ or less,” Mr Myers told Tribune Business. “We’ve got to focus on GDP to get things going, and can’t increase the cost of work permits and think that’s going to bring faster growth.
“If we don’t fix our education problem, businesses will be forced to go outside and find competent management that is capable of hiring some of our under-educated and teach those people skills that allow GDP to grow.
“There appears to be a massive disconnect between Immigration and the macro conditions. It’s a massive disconnect between Immigration, education and the macro conditions; just a huge disconnect. It’s like the right hand does not know what the left hand is doing. It’s very frustrating.”