By Alicia Wallace
Jobs. That seems to be the magic word - and politicians know it. “More jobs” is the promise of all promises and we hear it often, especially during election season and when the electorate is dissatisfied. It was no surprise when this was a major focus of the prime minister’s national address.
It became clear this plan depends heavily on the tourism industry. Hotels and marinas are at the root of his plan to create more jobs. The Bahamian economy is already overly dependent on the tourism industry and we have already seen the effects of an economy that is not diversified. Because vacations are optional and choices and destinations plentiful, tourism is a fickle beast. As we continue to push sun, sand and sea along with resorts many do not bother to step outside of once they’ve arrived, travellers are seeking adventure, health care, education and any number of other experiences elsewhere. If we are going to continue to depend on tourism for the vast majority of the country’s income, we need to expand our offerings, improve the product and safeguard it against unexpected events including hurricanes, US economy downturns and hard-hitting incidents of the 9/11 variety.
The running joke for two decades has been the Bahamian dream is partly made of a job at Atlantis — the second largest employer in The Bahamas. Many young people have chosen to study hospitality management because they have been led to believe that, because tourism is the largest industry, it will be easiest to get a job in that space. Of course we also have large numbers of students sticking to the old faithfuls including medicine, law and accounting. Meanwhile, we are in desperate need of development in other areas and students are not being made aware of those opportunities. They get the same degrees with the same majors and compete for the same small pool of jobs. How are we exposing young people to other opportunities, or making them aware of what they can do for themselves when they have the right education, training, and skill set?
There is no reason for job creation to be concentrated in tourism. The Bahamas is an archipelago. There is an abundance of water all around us. How are we exploring marine life? What has been our response to the lion fish crisis? What will we do about the depletion of conch? How can we use the ocean to produce energy? How is The Bahamas working toward Sustainable Development Goal 14 on life below water, where we could be leading the way?
Those of us in densely-populated Nassau often forget about the Family Islands, so we do not often think about the potential of the agriculture industry. There is very little conversation about food security, even as we complain often about the cost of imported goods. There needs to be space to explore and discuss these real and pressing issues and viable opportunities at multiple levels. There are often non-governmental organisations struggling to spark conversations about these issues and promote underdeveloped industries and the jobs that can be created, but they do not have the resources to sustain their work. There is a need for support from the government to increase their reach, create infrastructure and let the Bahamian people know about emerging opportunities. We are well past the time to move beyond the jobs-in-tourism promises.
Beyond jobs, business owners continue to complain about the difficulty in doing business in The Bahamas. While changes have been made to make the process easier to apply for and renew business licences, there are still a number of challenges to address. Taxation is a major issue. It is becoming increasingly difficult to attract or retain customers when cost is so high that no-one wants to pay the price. Customs duties and VAT drive cost up, electricity bills are high with unreliable service, bad roads deter customers and online shopping is quicker and easier than ever before. This is all related to the job market. These costs directly affect employment. How many people are employed? What is their salary? How long before they will be let go? These are determined by many factors not mentioned here, all of which need to be addressed. They may not fit neatly into a national address specifically focused on the economy, but they impact employment and the economy.
The plan for The Bahamas to join the World Trade Organization (WTO) deserves more focus than it has received thus far. This largely due to the lack of knowledge about the WTO and the effects accession would have on The Bahamas. No-one has properly explained it, much less the pros and cons. The conversation quickly devolved into for and against arguments and they, for the most part, do not make much sense because there is no base of understanding. This would have been a useful addition to the national address focused on the economy.
Trade liberalisation strikes fear in people, and understandably so. It removes barriers, including taxes and quotas, to exchange. It can result in higher efficiency, lower prices, lower quality and increase competition. Trade liberalisation affects employment as it can change the demand for labour. Will The Bahamas be able to adapt? Does the workforce have the education and skills to meet new needs? We have seen the effects of these kinds of agreements on other countries in the region, and this is definitely a good reason to give more careful consideration to the proposal.
We are already talking about the VAT and duty exemptions extended to foreign-owned entities. We cannot pretend there is no issue with our taxes increasing while these exemptions are offered to large companies and for little in return. Yes, they may employee some Bahamians, but look closely. How many? In which positions? At what rate of pay? What is the overall composition of labour? What is the ratio of Bahamian workers to foreign workers? This should be included in discussions about the economy and job creation. We need to know how much more of this to expect.
The national address on the economy was nothing groundbreaking. We got a review of what we already know and a few vague promises. We are likely to cling to the promise of job creation. It sounds good. It is necessary. Unfortunately, it cannot begin and end with tourism and have the impact we desperately need. It cannot be limited to the literal creation of jobs.
Young people need to know about emerging industries and be able to explore the ways their competencies and interests align with the possibilities. Particular attention needs to be put on vulnerable communities. We still need to look at the gender wage gap, how gender and unemployment are related and the ways Bahamians are disadvantaged by existing systems and those to come. We need to address the difficulty in raising capital to start new businesses or to expand existing businesses.
We have to go beyond the magic word. We need more than just jobs.