By Fay Simmons
Tribune Business Reporter
A Cabinet minister yesterday said The Bahamas is at a "crossroad" in combating work permit violations as he revealed the Government is mulling legal reforms to hold companies liable for breaches by their sub-contractors.
Keith Bell, minster of labour and Immigration, told a Bahamas Chamber of Commerce and Employers Confederation (BCCEC) breakfast that there could be "a significant collapse in certain industries" if the Government and Immigration Department were to cancel the work permits of all those caught working for companies who did not sponsor, and pay for, the approval.
He described this as one of the "challenges" where the Davis administration is seeking feedback from the private sector as to how they should be addressed. Mr Bell also confirmed that the Government is exploring whether to amend the law to make work site owners, and project managers/lead contractors, liable for Immigration breaches by sub-contractors who may be employing illegal migrants or persons without permits - something he supports.
And, while acknowledging that work permit fees have become a lucrative revenue stream for the Government, generating more than $20m in revenue during the 2023 first quarter, Mr Bell said he favoured more of the posts filled by expatriate workers going to Bahamians.
The minister said the Government received more than $20.6m from work permit fees during the year's first three months. He added that, typically, some 15,000 permits are granted annually out of 30,000 applications for a 50 percent approval rate.
“For the period January to March of this year alone, $20.604m was collected for work permits so far, and that is good; we need the money," Mr Bell said. "Imagine how much more beneficial it would be to our society to have the Bahamians working in these capacities.
“Immigration issues approximately 15,000 work permits every year in this country, and approximately 30,000 applications are received annually by the Department for positions across the country in areas where Bahamians are not qualified and where they are qualified.”
Mr Bell had previously warned Bahamian contractors against employing expatriates working outside the terms, and scope, of their work permit approvals, and also seeking to evade payment of the full due fee by passing some off as unskilled farm labourers rather than skilled building personnel.
He yesterday admitted that revoking the work permits of such violators may cause significant labour shortages for certain industries, and encouraged business owners to submit suggestions on how the Government should proceed in tackling this issue.
“We have discovered that a substantial majority of persons are working for persons who are not their employers," Mr Bell said. "And we will have had a number of meetings, particularly with the construction industry. And we do know this is something that we will have to debate and discuss, and we want input from all of us as Bahamians as to how we want to deal with it.
“Given the substantial number of persons who are working for other people, it's impossible for the director now to come in and say I'm going to cancel all of these work permits because we could have a significant collapse in certain industries. How do we now address that? Do we charge an administrative fee to allow my persons to work for you? Do we charge a flat rate? How do we address that? We're looking for input from you”
Mr Bell maintained that business owners have a responsibility to ensure their expatriate employees and sub-contractors have proper documentation to work in The Bahamas. He signalled that the Davis administration is seeking to introduce legislation to hold both owners and sub-contractors responsible for work permit breeches.
The minister said: “Many of us will say ‘it isn’t me’, but when Immigration goes to your workplace or work site we are discovering persons who are there not employed by you. If you own a company and you have a sub-contractor working on your site or your building, doing some work for you, then I am of the firm view that you, too, should also be liable. The owner and the occupier, and so we are looking at making recommendations and introducing legislation to that effect.
“So we need to hear from you as to how we ought to address and deal with these challenges. We’re at a crossroad in this country, and we have to determine how we now move forward with it.” Mr Bell said the Immigration Department has noticed a number of Bahamian employers applying for expatriates to receive work permits to fill positions that are reserved for Bahamians, while persons entering The Bahamas as ‘visitors’ and tourists are also obtaining permanent jobs.
He said: “We are seeing Bahamian employers apply for labour certificates in areas which are reserved for Bahamians. Or are applying for labour certificates and work permits in areas where we do have skilled and trained Bahamians. We have discovered again that persons who appear as visitors are actually working in a number of areas, not just on the low end, but also the high end.”
Mr Bell reiterated that there is an issue with persons working outside of the scope of their permits in order to avoid full fee payment, and that a number of firms are abdicating their responsibilities when it comes to nominating Bahamian understudies who can be trained up to take over from expatriates when the latter's work permit term ends.
He said: “We discovered that a number of persons are working outside the scope of their work permit to attract lower fees. And so, in many instances, we are discovering that a person is supposed to be a skilled worker, and in many instances, they are classified as an unskilled worker, which attracts a fee of $2,000.
"We are discovering they ought to be a skilled worker, which attracts $4,000 or $6,000. Or they may be an accountant or some other thing.. that attracts a fee of $12,500, and they are being charged $4,000 or $6,000. This is what we are discovering across the spectrum, so we are looking to address that.
"We have also seen where Bahamian employers apply for work permits, and are granted work permits in certain high-end positions, and one of the conditions of the grant is they must have an understudy. But in many cases we have had understudies who don’t even know they are supposed to be understudying the person.”
Mr Bell said this practice allows companies to continuously reapply for work permits for expatriates and, after 20 years, these persons fulfill the requirements for residence and, subsequently, citizenship.
He said: “Right now in The Bahamas, there are two major debates going on: Crime and Immigration. But if the understudies are not identified, and do not know, and then are subsequently sidelined, then the individual who consistently and continuously gets that work permit, after 20 work permits, they are entitled to apply for permanent residence. After they get permanent residence, then they can apply for citizenship.
“So you can't debate us and get mad with the Government if that happens because the reality is that is something of our own doing.”