By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
A former Immigration minister yesterday argued that many Bahamians simply fail to take advantage of available employment opportunities because "their work ethic is bad".
Branville McCartney, the ex-Democratic National Alliance's (DNA) leader, told Tribune Business that the prime minister's floated solution for better skills/knowledge transfer between expatriate hires and Bahamian understudies was "good in theory, but very difficult in practice".
Responding after Dr Hubert Minnis suggested that expatriate workers should be replaced by other foreign hires should they fail to properly train a Bahamian replacement before their visa expires, so as to prevent them establishing long-term "roots" in this nation, Mr McCartney reiterated that any "understudy" policy should be applied on a case-by-case basis rather than across-the-board.
Pointing to numerous "intricacies", not least the cost to Bahamian employers from having to cover two salaries and uncertainty over whether understudies will "stick it out" through their probationary periods, the former immigration minister under the last Ingraham administration warned a "hard and fast" application could unduly burden the private sector.
"The main reason persons are hiring foreigners is because we don't have persons here to do the job. Let's be real," Mr McCartney told Tribune Business. "It also applies to the likes of gardeners and handymen. I understand what the prime minister is saying about giving Bahamians opportunities but unfortunately they don't take the opportunity.
"They don't want to be handymen, they don't want to be gardeners and they don't want to be housemaids. You see them for one week, they get paid, and then you don't see them because they call on sick or they're in Miami.
"The work ethic is, and has been, for Bahamians simply bad. I am a proponent of Bahamians first, Bahamians having opportunities, but we also have to be realistic about the situation, where we are, and you hardly get anything done in your business or profession depending on what your call is, when you have Bahamians who don't want to work," he continued.
"They want a job, they want to get paid, but they don't want to work. I am involved in many businesses, and see it every day. What the prime minister is saying is excellent, very good in theory, but very difficult in practice to put into place. It has to be done on an individual, case-by-case basis."
Mr McCartney's remarks are likely to cause controversy, especially among Bahamian workers who allege that they have been overlooked for a position they are qualified to fill because expatriate labour is considered cheaper. University and college graduates, too, returning home from overseas often argue that they find it difficult to land an appropriate job because they are deemed to be "over-qualified".
Some observers will also argue that understudy initiatives in other countries have worked well, and there is no reason why The Bahamas cannot follow suit. Dr Minnis' comments were a variation of the theme recently voiced by John Pinder, director of labour, who said work permits will not be issued unless employers have identified a Bahamian understudy and are providing the necessary training.
The "understudy" idea has always been a government policy but it has rarely been enforced. Many Bahamians will likely be watching closely to see whether the Prime Minister's House of Assembly rhetoric translates into action or is just part of election campaign talk, with online response on this newspaper's website currently veering towards the latter.
And Mr McCartney's comments will also strike a chord with the view that many Bahamians see jobs such as gardeners, handymen and maids as ill-paid and beneath them, resulting in them refusing to take the work even if it is available and they need it. The vast majority of work permits issued by the Department of Immigration are for such posts.
"The thought of having that policy is good," the ex-DNA leader said of Dr Minnis' assertion, "because we want Bahamians to have opportunities to take advantage of certain circumstances, but the reality is that it has to be done on a case-by-case basis.
"The suggestion of having an understudy has been around for some time, but to put it into practice very difficult. Not only difficult but expensive. It calls for Bahamians who are willing to understudy, and to stick with it and work, and be committed to it.
"It also calls for the employer to be in position not only to hire the expatriate but an understudy. That calls for two salaries. In addition to that, there's no telling whether or not the Bahamian will continue beyond the understudy period. The intricacies are very difficult, very technical. It can be another burden to the businessman."
Mr McCartney said the retail pharmacy business, in which has family is invested, has struggled with a shortage of trained Bahamian pharmacists for years. Work permits for expatriate hires now stand at $9,500 per annum, and implementation of the understudy policy would create the need for an extra Bahamian worker in addition to the salary and benefits they will demand.
"It cannot work straight across the board," the ex-Immigration minister reiterated. "That's what the Immigration Board is for: To consider each case individually. We cannot be so hard and fast, determined to say this is the policy and no exceptions.
"A lot of these Immigration matters and policies are very good in theory, but when they are implemented in practice you'll see there are intricacies to each one and we have to look at them on a case-by-case basis."
Mr McCartney, though, said the Prime Minister's concerns about expatriates who entered The Bahamas on work permits or as sub-contractors, only to establish their own businesses here - some of which are in sectors reserved for Bahamian ownership only by the National Investment Policy - was a different matter.
He said such ventures should be judged on their economic and employment impact, and whether they were needed for national growth and development or not. "That's something slightly different and to be looked into," Mr McCartney added. "If the business is something we need in this country, it must be considered.
"We've seen that over the years in the construction industry, directly or indirectly. They come over, work on these hotels and then start owning their own construction business. It's a question of whether it's something we need or are trying to develop. That's how countries grow. If it's something we don't need it must be reviewed."