By Youri Kemp
A prominent Freeport attorney says he is extremely disappointed in comments made by The Bahamas’ World Trade Organisation’s (WTO) chief negotiator, Zhivargo Laing that it is '95 percent unlikely' that the government will accede to the WTO during this current term.
Carey Leonard, senior associate at the Callender’s and Co. in Grand Bahama, told Tribune Business WTO accession had to happen.
"The government must do this by 2021,” said Leonard.
“When one travelled in the 70s and 80s we were ahead of many countries even in Europe. For the last ten years we have fallen further and further behind. In terms of financial transactions and other commerce related matters.”
Leonard claims the reason why these countries are ahead of us now is “the WTO drives a process of business reform” as Laing recognises.
“The reforms are needed whether you join or not, but it is that the WTO pushes us to make these reforms more rapidly.”
"I think it will be their (the government's) biggest folly if they don’t sign on to the WTO.
"It is a fact that there is a whole group of laws we must change and policy changes we must enact. For example, with trademarks you can get trademarks approved in the United States of America (USA) at a fixed cost, in record time and be given an estimated time that you would be given an answer on whether your application for a trademark would be granted or not. But you can’t do that here in The Bahamas. Trademarks themselves are very valuable to any business. “
Leonard told Tribune Business; "If we don’t sign on to WTO you can kiss your middle class goodbye and watch the standards of living drop further and further
“Because of the Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) and Laing mentions this, we now have a Standards Commission. For example we have persons in The Bahamas who say they grow organic eggs, but where is their certification? How am I to tell if these are in fact organic eggs and not filled with chemicals?”
"The WTO drives standards. We talk about tourism being the biggest market, but if you don’t have the standards it is had to get into it.”
Leonard rejected fears that the Bahamas would be invaded with foreigners and foreign workers trying to displace Bahamian. “You are not getting any freedom of movement with the WTO. If that were so, you wouldn’t have people lining up at the border of the USA, who is also the biggest member of the WTO. You simply can’t be let in that easily," he said.
“There is, however, going to be easier entry for professional people wanting to come in.”
But Leonard insisted: “We can compete with the foreigners - there are thousands of Bahamians working in other places around the world from the Middle East to Asia to North America and Europe. They didn’t get their jobs because immigration was holding them up.”
Leonard also said he does not understand Super Value owner, Rupert Roberts’s objection to WTO: “I haven’t got a clue where Rupert Roberts is coming (from). I don’t understand why he is objecting to it. I don’t see a downside,” he said.
Leonard gave an example of how Bahamian companies have won out against foreign competition in The Bahamas, in the example of how Mr. Roberts’s own Super Value chain - when they bought one portion of the former City Markets grocery chain once owned by the American supermarket chain Winn Dixie and another Bahamian supermarket chain, Abaco Markets Limited (AML) bought the other portion.
Leonard also gave example of where the former petroleum dealer, Texaco, was replaced by another, Rubis, where “Rubis is now owned by the Bahamian oil and petroleum distributor, Freeport Oil Company Limited (FOCOL) and they put out Texaco.”
Leonard also dispelled fears the Bahamas not produce anything. “People are afraid that The Bahamas does not produce anything. But financial services is something we produce as well as hotel and tourism is something that we produce.”
“Right now there is nothing that can stop the USA from slapping on a tax for people who are departing to the Bahamas, but they can’t do it to Jamaica or Barbados or Trinidad or any other country in the western hemisphere because of those countries having WTO.”
Leonard also gave an example of how a company in Grand Bahamas that he declined to name, “had a contract to ship their product to Mexico, but the Mexicans realized that The Bahamas was not a members of WTO so they increased the import duties on it, leading to the contract being cancelled and the planned expansion in the Bahamas was cancelled and therefore the additional employment in The Bahamas was never realised.
Leonard noted that employment in the manufacturing sector gives better salaries than that in the tourism sector.
Leonard also gave an example of when the OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development) crunched down on The Bahamas in the early 2000’a where we had “a massive departure in head offices from The Bahamas that left to countries like Barbados and other WTO member countries in the region.” Leonard further said “they left for other WTO member countries in the region because the OECD could not strong-arm those countries the way they did The Bahamas.”
“We must get the fact that we must reform our laws. So you can get a standardisation of business that is comparable to the rest of the world,” Leonard ultimately said.