By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
The government was yesterday warned that the short-term work permit exemptions may conflict with “professional standards and regulations” for certain job categories.
Gowon Bowe, the Bahamas Institute of Chartered Accountants (BICA) president, told Tribune Business that some of the job titles and descriptions in the Immigration (Amendment) Bill were overly broad and had fuelled “some of the paranoia and concerns” raised over the legislation.
As an example, he pointed to the inclusion of “auditor” as one category where a foreign professional could enter The Bahamas without requiring a short-term work visa for up to 14 days if they are here to “attend a business meeting with a local company”.
Mr Bowe said this potentially conflicted with the laws and regulations governing the Bahamian accounting profession, as those involved in audit, attestation and assurance work have to be both licensed by BICA and either a Bahamian citizen or permanent resident with the right to work.
“Our profession is unique,” he told Tribune Business. “Some of the [job] titles in the Bill they have to be careful using... While the intent may have been to be as broad as possible with some of the job titles used, they have to be careful crossing over professional standards as well as regulations that require certain professions to be registered with institutions and regulators.
“From that perspective, when you throw in all these titles that’s one of the concerns with the general public. It has to be honed in more specifically to key management personnel that are critical to a business in terms of strategy and direction.
“I believe the titles thrown in are very broad, and that is giving rise to some of the paranoia and concerns being raised.”
The Immigration (Amendment) Bill 2019, which was debated and voted on in the Senate yesterday, aims to further eliminate immigration bureaucracy and red tape - and occasionally unpleasant experiences at the airport - by ending the requirement for executives to obtain a “short term” or any type of work visa/permit if they are in The Bahamas to conduct specific types of business 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”, with the liberalised Immigration regime intended to be part of a wider government strategy to deregulate the economy, improve its competitiveness and send the signal that The Bahamas is open for business.
The “business meeting” exemption, though, is relatively broad and goes beyond chairmen, directors, shareholders, and all executives from the rank of chief financial officer up, to include the likes of 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, and especially the financial services industry, has been pushing for such reforms for years on the grounds that they will enhance The Bahamas’ ease of doing business and reputation while avoiding embarrassing incidents that have seen senior corporate executives refused entry and/or detained and given a grilling by Immigration officers at the airport.
Brent Symonette, minister of financial services, investments and Immigration, has repeatedly said the Bill is designed to provide greater clarity on who requires/does not require short-term work permits to enter The Bahamas.
He has argued that it does not dilute the powers of Immigration officers to deny entry but, ever since the legislation made it to the House of Assembly, it has come under fire from the Government’s political opponents who are alleging it is unenforceable, undermines the concept of “Bahamianisation”, and dilutes the protections afforded to local professionals in their own country.
Mr Bowe yesterday joined Bahamas Bar Association president, Khalil Parker, in confirming that BICA, too, had not been formally consulted on the short-term work permit reforms and was unaware of the proposal.
While taking the Government’s objectives at “face value”, he said it needed to “satisfy” Bahamian stakeholders that the changes would not provide a backdoor route for foreign workers to enter The Bahamas and conduct work they would normally need a long-term work permit for.
The BICA president reiterated that The Bahamas needed a balanced approach, warning that while it must not be perceived as “overly restrictive” on Immigration it had to ensure opportunities were provided for qualified local professionals.
“Taking it at face value, this is not opening up opportunities for someone - coming to provide services that normally they would need a long-term work permit for - trying to do it on a short-term permit,” Mr Bowe said.
“This is speaking about business specific and people to operate in their own business. We have to be very careful about being seen to be overly protectionist in the sense that if we’re looking for investors to set up shop in The Bahamas we have to be flexible.
“We can’t have our cake and eat it by saying: ‘Bring your money but not your resources’. While The Bahamas has to protect the rights of its citizens, it cannot be closed. If we do not allow persons in growth will be limited as the population size is not large,” he added.
“There is a need to have a broader national discussion over international exposure without passing up the rights of domestic persons to have opportunities. We need to focus on making sure our people are able to compete on the international stage.”
Mr Bowe said Immigration needed to ensure it had a system in place to track the entry/exit of persons exempted from short-term work permits to ensure there was no abuse, adding that the Government needed to accept criticism over how the reforms have been handled.
“The Government has to be mature and take the criticism over the way it was rolled out and consultation, whether it be with worker representatives like the unions or the professions covered by some of the titles in the legislation,” he told Tribune Business.
“I believe the appropriate criticism is that the manner in which it has been presented was not done in a way that appropriately addressed stakeholder groups, and set out the actual mechanisms and legal [rationale] behind it.”
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.