By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
The Government’s decision to permit a major Abaco resort to bring in more than 100 Mexican construction workers was yesterday branded as “beyond egregious”.
Leonard Sands, the Bahamian Contractors Association’s (BCA) immediate past president, said “it vexes my soul” to see so many foreign workers imported at a time when thousands of residents are unemployed due to the combination of Hurricane Dorian and COVID-19.
Criticising the Association for “not raising the red flag” in objection to this more strongly, he added that the Government should have halted Baker’s Bay Golf & Ocean Club’s plans without needing to even review its original decision given The Bahamas’ current economic circumstances.
Pointing out that neither Baker’s Bay nor the Government have ever justified the need for so many work permits, Mr Sands argued that 90 percent of the wages received by the Mexicans will immediately be remitted home and never circulate in the Bahamian economy.
Insisting that the Bahamian workforce can supply workers with the same skills, and in sufficient quantity, to match those of the Mexicans, the former Association president asked: “When will the skilled Bahamian workers have an opportunity to earn a wage in the Commonwealth of The Bahamas?”
However, he was somewhat contradicted by Stephen Wrinkle, another ex-BCA president, who told Tribune Business that the controversy surrounding the Mexicans’ arrival stemmed from The Bahamas’ own failure to properly manage, train and develop its construction industry.
He argued that the Government’s failure to mandate joint venture partnerships between Bahamian contractors, and their foreign counterparts and developers, meant that the necessary skills and knowledge needed to participate in work on major foreign direct investment (FDI) was not being transferred to locals.
Mr Wrinkle said this ultimately created “a Catch 22” where foreign developers were unable to find an adequate supply of the skills they needed in The Bahamas, resulting in them importing expatriate labour.
And he identified “another aspect” as being that lower-cost Mexican, Chinese and Filipino workers typically “out-produce” Bahamians, with the absence of joint venturing preventing the latter from learning skills and behaviour that would close this output.
“It’s our own fault. We have nobody but us to blame,” Mr Wrinkle told Tribune Business, as growing controversy mounted over yesterday’s arrival of the Mexican workers in The Bahamas via a chartered Bahamasair flight.
Around 135 had been expected to come, and their presence aroused great interest as photos and videos showing their airport arrival were circulated widely on social media. The situation generated strong passions and emotive responses, with many questioning why the Mexicans were needed when there are so many Bahamians unemployed.
“It vexes my mind. This one is beyond egregious,” Mr Sands told Tribune Business. “It’s beyond egregious because in the wake of Dorian thousands of persons were laid off on that island and the surrounding cays, and in the wake of COVID-19 thousands of Bahamians are unemployed and walking Nassau’s streets.”
He argued that construction, which Department of Statistics data shows employed just under 20,000 persons pre-pandemic, was one of the few industries with the ability to absorb some of the present 30-40 percent unemployment rate - especially among semi-skilled and unskilled workers.
Yesterday’s Mexican arrivals represent at least some of the expatriate labour Baker’s Bay had obtained work permit approvals for late last year. They had been expected to arrive earlier to kick-start the development’s post-Dorian rebuild, but that was delayed by COVID-19 and the global borders shutdown.
Tribune Business understands that Baker’s Bay had originally applied for as many as 500 work permits, but the Minnis Cabinet - via the National Economic Council - approved only 300, and directed the Ministry of Labour and Immigration Department to complete the process of issuing them.
Dr Livingston Marshall, Baker’s Bay’s senior vice-president for environmental and community affairs, yesterday declined to comment on the growing controversy but said he would respond today.
He had told Tribune Business earlier this year that Baker’s Bay’s developer, Discovery Land Company, was seeking to hire the Mexicans to help lead reconstruction at the luxury Guana Cay-based development.
Defending the move, he said the developer was hoping their specialist skills will provide a boost in rebuilding what was the so-called “anchor project” for north Abaco. The Mexicans were said to have performed similar services for other Discovery Land Company properties hit by storms in Mexico and Central America.
Dr Hubert Minnis recently told Parliament that Baker’s Bay, which was devastated by Dorian’s Category Five winds and storm surge, planned to invest some $400m to rebuild over a three-year period. He added that 80 percent of the present construction workforce (before the Mexicans’ arrival) was Bahamian.
Local construction industry professionals, speaking to Tribune Business on condition of anonymity, said there were multiple local contractors present on Great Guana Cay such as SMG and Caribbean Landscaping.
Those executives backed Baker’s Bay’s stance that there are simply not enough Bahamians with the skills required to restore the multi-million dollar properties of a resort and private members’ club.
Mr Sands, though, argued that “there’s no test” applied by the Government or any of its agencies to determine whether the skills needed by Baker’s Bay are already present in The Bahamas, and whether such a large quantity of expatriate labour is necessary.
“We only have the word of the person bringing them in,” the ex-BCA president said. “They may be very skilled, but I argue that we can find the same skills in The Bahamas.
“I do not know how we came to this place, but this place is a bad place to be. I’m very disappointed that the BCA did not raise the flag strongly enough, hard enough, to object to this move. I would have done that if I was in the chair. This is unacceptable, unacceptable.”
Advocating that the Government prioritise job creation for Bahamians first amid COVID-19’s fall-out, Mr Sands said it should not even have required a second look for the Cabinet to instruct Dion Foulkes, minister of labour, and Elsworth Johnson, minister with responsibility for labour, to halt the Mexicans’ arrival.
“The wages they receive, every single week until they leave, will largely be repatriated,” Mr Sands said. “Only 10 percent will stay in The Bahamas. If we have 300 Bahamians working, by the time those wages have finished circulating in the economy, you’re talking about 300,000 being affected.
“There is a need for work permits to be granted in certain positions but the purpose of them being granted is to transfer skills. Who are the 300 Mexicans working together going to transfer their skills to?
“It is an abuse of our work permit system. The next project will use that as a precedent, and the next one. When will the skilled Bahamian worker have an opportunity to earn a wage in the Commonwealth of The Bahamas? That’s the question I’d like to have an answer to.
“That’s a question to ask the Prime Minister and minister of labour. They find all sorts of reasons this is acceptable, but this is not. We have to change this behaviour because it vexes my soul.”
Mr Wrinkle, though, argued that Bahamians themselves must share responsibility for the controversy over the Mexicans. “This is a direct result of not managing the construction industry and enabling the BCA to properly train industry participants,” he argued.
“The Government has never really mandated joint venture partnerships. What happens is that the less we participate in these projects, the less we know about them and the trades and skill-sets required, and the less prepared we are to participate in future.
“It’s really a Catch-22. We don’t have the skilled trades people because we don’t participate in these projects, and when the developer wants labour we don’t have a ready pool available. That’s one part of the problem,” Mr Wrinkle continued.
“Another aspect is that the Mexicans, Chinese and Filipinos are extremely productive workers, and out-produce our workers all the time. To deal with that, the idea was the blending of the workforces so that Bahamians picked up on productive traits.
“This is why we are where we are. It’s been the same way for 30 years. It happens over and over again until a policy change is made at the highest levels of government, and they recognise the BCA as the entity to licence and control the industry, and FDI projects train the workers when they come.”
Mr Wrinkle argued that Baker’s Bay was “between a rock and a hard place” in needing to rebuild rapidly amid the constraints of available skills in the local workforce. “It’s our own fault. We have nobody but us to blame. We cannot blame the foreigners for wanting to expedite their rebuilding,” he said.