By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
Abaco's labour shortages are causing post-Dorian reconstruction prices to "skyrocket" by at least 25 percent, the island's Chamber of Commerce chief warned yesterday.
Ken Hutton told Tribune Business that the Government and wider Bahamas "need to pull out all the stops" to meet the island's needs given that the lack of qualified contractors and skilled trades persons could double the time taken to rebuild while "pricing out" many Bahamians.
With skilled contractors saying they have client waiting lists of "about a year", he argued that the sheer extent of Dorian's devastation - and the required reconstruction - meant that the island needed an influx in the "hundreds" to speed up its rebound.
Describing the recent controversy over the Baker's Bay Golf & Ocean Club's decision to bring in 135 Mexican construction workers as an example of this problem, Mr Hutton said The Bahamas had not choice but "to take a hit" for both that project and wider reconstruction efforts.
He argued that Abaco needed Baker's Bay to be restored and re-opened "as quickly and possible" given its status as the so-called anchor project for the Marsh Harbour area, having employed more than 1,000 Bahamians prior to Dorian and COVID-19."
Mr Hutton said that if this required bringing in specialist expatriate labour "that's what we have to do", adding that time is running out for "a decision to be made" on how Abaco's workforce weaknesses are to be addressed.
While the COVID-19 lockdown "never really halted" construction efforts on the Dorian-ravaged island, the Chamber president said the labour shortage was being worsened as many second homeowners were returning to the island seeking to rebuild with the re-opening of The Bahamas' borders.
He added that a lack of suitable worker housing was another dilemma for rebuilding efforts, although proposals for a "man camp" and forms of temporary accommodation are already coming from the private sector.
"Many home owners have returned, both locals and second home, but the problem is there's no labour here," Mr Hutton told Tribune Business. "There's a real shortage of labour, and exacerbating that is the shortage of housing to accommodate them.
"I understand there are a couple of solutions; a man camp and temporary housing that may be in the offing. I'm hopeful those will come online sooner rather than later. There was very little rental housing in Abaco before the storm. It's made a bad situation worse."
Mr Hutton, who works for a hardware supplier, said building materials prices had remained steady throughout the reconstruction effort to-date. Yet he reiterated: "The cost of labour here is skyrocketing at the moment when you can find it. It's gone up significantly.
"When there's a labour shortage the price of construction goes up, and Bahamians might be priced out of the market as second home owners return.
"I've heard talk of numbers [for construction costs] from $500 per square feet to $1,000 per square feet. I'm sceptical of $1,000, but pre-Dorian they were at $350-$400 per square foot. Now it's up to $500 per square foot. A 1,000 square foot home is about $500,000, which is ridiculous."
Mr Hutton warned that this "new reality is about to rise" as The Bahamas re-opens its borders to international travel. "We need labour, but labour that can be afforded by the average Bahamian," he told Tribune Business.
"In terms of the good contractors, they're talking of waiting lists of about a year right now. There's a lot of people walking around calling themselves contractors, but they're not, which is frightening.
"If there's shoddy work, they're going to disappear. There's no recourse for shoddy workmanship. That's another thing that can happen in the disaster zone, where it's rebuilt worse than it was before. There are some issues we are trying to address or are being addressed as best as possible," Mr Hutton added.
"We need hundreds of people up here. There's so much to be done; years of work to be done. I've said it before; I don't think there's enough labour in the country to do what needs to be done in the timeframe that it needs to be done.
"It could take six to seven years versus three to five years unless it's dealt with. A decision has to be made to pull out all the stops to get Abaco back up and running as quickly as possible and do whatever is necessary."
Mr Hutton said the recent controversy over Baker's Bay's importation of Mexican construction workers epitomised the challenges and dilemmas facing the island's rebuilding efforts.
"It remains an anchor project," he added of Discovery Land Company's Great Guana Cay-based property, which has pledged to invest $400m in its rebuilding over the next two to three years.
"We need to get Baker's Bay operational as quickly as possible because it provides over 1,000 local jobs and the spin-off into the local economy is tremendous," Mr Hutton told this newspaper.
"They brought in 135 Mexicans. Going back to the labour shortage, I think Baker's Bay needs to do whatever it needs to do to get back open and moving as quickly as possible. If that means we need to take a hit and bring in labour, that's what we have to do.
"But we need to get that property back up and running. I'm looking at the restaurants, hospitality, marina, the shore excursions. It has a huge impact for locals and we need to get that back, that employment, which was over 1,000 Bahamians when it was operational."
Mr Hutton also voiced concern over Bahamas Power & Light's (BPL) ability to keep electricity flowing amid constant blackouts that were affecting every part of the island even as more and more customers are restored to the grid.
"The biggest issue going forward is ensuring we have the generation capacity to power everyone coming on line," he explained. "I don't know what they currently have available but we are going through blackouts right now."