By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
The government’s “short-term work visa” reforms have revived fears among local retailers and distributors about the ability of unregistered foreign salesmen to steal their business.
Jeffrey Beckles, the Bahamas Chamber of Commerce’s chief executive, yesterday praised recently-unveiled changes to the Immigration Act as “a step in the right direction” but said they did not address long-standing concerns about the ability of foreign salesmen to enter The Bahamas without the necessary permits and conduct commerce illegally.
While the reforms, tabled this week in the House of Assembly, increase transparency and certainty around exactly who requires a short-term work permit to enter The Bahamas and who is exempt, Mr Beckles said this nation needed to better protect local companies who held distribution rights for a particular product in this nation.
“The biggest concern, if there is any, is that many of the retailers in The Bahamas have complained for years about foreign sales people coming here from the US and Canada claiming to be on vacation and going to the casino but, in fact, calling on clients, making and taking orders, and some even taking currency remittances back,” the chamber chief told Tribune Business.
“We know they’ve been ducking under the radar before to the detriment of local entrepreneurs. There are many manufacturer representatives in The Bahamas, but if we have unregistered foreign sales people calling, how to we protect licensed retailers and distributors in Nassau?
“If they came in under the radar before, what’s to prevent them now coming in here for 14 days. Are they able to conduct the same level of business, take back currency remittances? That’s a concern of ours. If people are here to transact business, they have to be here legally. I can’t show up in someone else’s country and start working without permission.”
Mr Beckles said such activities by foreign salespersons violate the licensing and distribution rights that may have been granted by manufacturers to local businesses for the entire Bahamas.
“I had a retailer say to me the other day: ‘I was in a certain island, and saw pallets of products I’m supposed to represent. How does that stuff get in’,” he revealed. “As long as manufacturers give local entities licensing and distribution rights for The Bahamas, we should do our best to protect them. There are many times distributors don’t know people are bathing in our pond.”
The Immigration (Amendment) Bill 2019 aims to further eliminate Immigration bureaucracy and red tape - and occasionally unpleasant experiences at the airport - by ending the requirement for business executives to obtain a “short term” or any type of work visa/permit if they are in The Bahamas for 14 days or less.
The exemption applies to persons attending Bahamas-based conferences and seminars as participants; trade shows and summits; or working as a non-executive director of a business “being carried on in The Bahamas” where they are not involved in daily operations.
Also exempt are senior executives and management professionals who fly in to “attend a business meeting with a local company”. This applies to chairmen, directors, shareholders, all executives from the rank of chief financial officer up, managers, consultants, attorneys, compliance officers and accountants.
Others included under this initiative, and exempt from the short-term work visa requirement, are auditors, actuaries, medical professionals, analysts and controllers.
The private sector has been pushing for such reforms for years, both on the grounds that it will enhance The Bahamas’ ease of doing business and reputation, while avoiding embarrassing incidents that have over the years seen senior corporate executives refused entry and/or detained and given an grilling by Immigration officers at the airport.
Brent Symonette, minister of financial services, trade and industry, and Immigration, last February told Tribune Business that the Government was considering such reforms, and seeking business community feedback on what worker categories should be exempted from the “short-term work visa” requirement.
He revealed that the Immigration Department received around 200 applications per week for short-term visas and permits, creating “a large amount of paperwork” that could be reduced once these reforms were enacted.
And Mr Symonette said the legislation was intended to narrow the discretion which the Immigration Department currently applies at the border to determine who needs short-term work visas and who does not.
Backing the general thrust of the reforms, Mr Beckles said yesterday: “In some respects I think it makes it easier and more transparent in what is required to come and do work here. Does it tidy things up? Maybe in some instances. It’s a step in the right direction.
“At the end of the day it’s contingent on the Immigration Department and those involved to ensure the system is fully [implemented] so at the end of the day we’re not reinventing the wheel every several years as we have done.
“This new initiative has to be executed in a manner that continually shows how benefits are accruing to The Bahamas, and that’s a very reasonable expectation.”
Mr Beckles said The Bahamas “does not appear to be a process-oriented country”, acknowledging the problems this had caused when the issue of short-term work visas - and whether a fee is required - was left to the discretion of Immigration officers at ports of entry.
“Hopefully this new iteration will provide consistent signs that the process is improving and we’re becoming more efficient,” he told Tribune Business. “Nobody likes being held up or detained at the airport. That, my friend is not a very pleasant experience, and the downside of that is quite impactful because the country gets spoken about as if we have a Gestapo mentality.
“We have rules, but sometimes the rules are ambiguous depending on who you’re dealing with. If we have rules in place, let’s enforce them and ensure they’re manageable. This is part of our challenge.”
The Bill also creates the BH-1B work visa, which is intended to underpin and complement the Commercial Enterprises Act, and its promise to liberalise the Immigration regime for companies in sectors targeted by that law.
The Commercial Enterprises Act attempts to introduce certainty and predictability to the work permit regime by requiring the director of immigration to make a decision on their approval within 14 days of the application’s receipt. Applications from businesses covered by the Act must be submitted within 30 days of the worker’s arrival in The Bahamas.
Mr Beckles said the reforms would enable The Bahamas to “quantify”, and collect data, on expatriate workers coming into The Bahamas. He added that while the reforms focused on making it easier for top-level, highly skilled foreigners to enter this nation, the Government could not ignore the creation of opportunities for Bahamians of a similar standard if they were available.
“Let’s face it; we’re catching up with what the global village is doing,” Mr Beckles said of the BH-1B visa. “It’s practically everywhere now.”