Politics, Race and Work Permits – “ACCORDING TO ME” TRIBUNE COLUMN

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It is about time the government of the day is called out about the shameless and dangerous charade it is playing with the Bahamian people and economy regarding expatriates, work permits and the role of foreign labour in our country.

Foreign direct investment is the driving force of this economy. Foreign labour on the domestic side meantime is an integral part of our socio-economic structure. To handle this irresponsibly is to threaten the economy.

The government – notably being led by the Foreign Affairs Minister instead of the Prime Minister on the matter of sweeping policy changes for The Bahamas – is not doing what it is doing because it is trying to help Bahamians, as its post-election political campaign disguised as “necessary policy reforms” would have some believe.

Its rudimentary agenda is this – a desperate attempt to remain politically relevant and viable to a shrinking base and a malcontent electorate. And the only way it seems to know how to do this is by trying to channel its legacy of struggle for black Bahamians – carrying out this now washed-up reincarnation on the backs of their ever-present boogeyman– the foreigner/white man.

The Bahamian Workforce

The Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) has produced a report on facts about the Bahamian workforce we already know: our workforce contains a disproportionate number of unskilled workers and workers who are unemployable for a variety of reasons.

If the government’s work permit campaign was representative of their truly believing in Bahamian employment, the first thrust you would have seen would have been national training, development, re-development and apprenticeship programmes spearheaded by the government.

You would have seen a thrust into new, cutting edge and workable changes to our educational system – not only to improve the skill levels of high school graduates, but to improve the nation as a whole because an educated people is a strong, vibrant and self-sufficient people.

You would have seen the millions the government has funneled into the pockets of retirees and political cronies, directed into enhancing and creating educational and training opportunities for Bahamians. And you most certainly wouldn’t have seen this same “believe in Bahamians” government fire/let go scores of Bahamians from the public service, and otherwise deny Bahamians entry into certain posts in the public service because of politics.

But alas, as we young people say, the government “ain’t about this life”. There are many skilled Bahamians in our country – indeed you are reading the column of one of them. There are many more who are unskilled though, and that number grows every year as thousands graduate high school and seek to enter the workforce without being able to read, write and calculate at a 12th grade level. This should be any truly progressive government’s primary focus.

This campaign, that is already costing some Bahamians their jobs through the departure of investors, is sham politics masquerading as governance. The Foreign Affairs Minister revealed and hence confirmed this last month, when he was quoted in the press as saying new work permit policies are being instituted because the PLP’s campaign slogan was “Believe in The Bahamas.”

So that’s how you effectively run a country and manage and grow an economy – by falsely pandering to an even more false political campaign slogan, and thus gambling with an already fragile national economy?

Notice well Bahamas – the government a year into office has not attracted a single investment project to this country, which is what they should be focused on. So to take your focus off that, they are feigning a battle with foreigners claiming they are doing so for you and me.

The ExPat/Foreigner/White Man

This campaign is not truly directed at trying to take away “anyone’s Haitian”. This is moreso aimed at expatriates – the foreigner – at times generally and ignorantly referred to as “the white man”.

It is also aimed at “the well-to-do from Lyford Cay to Eastern Road”, who the Foreign Affairs Minister specifically singled out according to the press last year, which quoted him as saying these specific Bahamians and residents had too many Filipino domestic workers in their homes for his taste.

The word is xenophobia: a fear or hatred – often irrationally so – of anything foreign. This is an issue few like to talk about publicly in our country because speaking truth in The Bahamas is apparently un-Bahamian for many.

Bahamians in general have an irrational fear and aversion to foreigners, which is offensively counterbalanced in part only by the irrational deference we pay to foreign talent as a symptom of latent racial inferiority many of us have, but that almost none of us will admit to. Because of this mixed bag of mindsets in our society, it is not hard to create a perpetual boogeyman based on race, ethnicity or nationality.

The foreigner in The Bahamas always becomes the target of parasitic politicians seeking to sway the public in a particular direction for political gain. When convenient, Haitians are the target. This time the government, trying to call on its absolutely former glory, is making the “other” foreigner the enemy who it needs to now “put in check” to protect Bahamian patrimony (jobs).

Because this is simply a redolent political campaign, it is clear that the government deviously calculates the public pushback – which is undesirable in politics – will be minimum because:

1- Expatriates cannot/will not speak out publicly against the government of the day and its policies, and white Bahamians (who certain politicians seem to feel are not really Bahamian because they are white) are reluctant to start public debates that could wind up getting into rows about race for all the obvious reasons.

2- The ignorant among us who still nurse our prejudices, love to hear talk that sounds like the government is “putting those people in check”.

3- The Opposition is too weak to effectively call the government out on what it is really doing, why it is doing it and the dangers involved.

And the key danger of this campaign is this – The Bahamas cannot afford to lose its foreign investments and investors. If every single expatriate closed their companies and/or left the job and went back home right now, our country and its economy would come to a complete standstill.

There will be no sudden rush of skilled Bahamians to open the same companies and/or fill their posts, and there certainly won’t be a rush of Bahamians clamoring to start weeding, cutting grass, keeping house and doing all the other domestic jobs Bahamians believe they are too good to do. The public pushback the government isn’t seeing just yet it will run and hide from when companies begin taking their business elsewhere.

As for foreign direct investment, there is no free economy that welcomes foreign investment on this planet that tells an investor: “you can bring in your millions and your projects, but we will tell you who you can hire – and don’t bother thinking about bringing in some of your own people to work in your own company funded by your own money either.” Only a government in office of this particular ilk would try to make The Bahamas think otherwise.

Contrary to ignorant belief, the expatriates who invest collective billions into our economy do not have to do business in The Bahamas – there are other countries in the world. Someone needs to give this government that memo.

The government is willing to alienate the expatriate sector if it means they can look like the “savior of the Bahamian” to their base – the dwindling number of Bahamians who may still fall for that game.

It’s a sad, pathetic thing to watch major political Parties cling to sectors of their base like a wino clutching his last bottle, as opposed to those Parties growing with and for the people they seek to represent. Their base doesn’t mature, because their politicians won’t and of course don’t see the need to if at the end of the day, shenanigans like this campaign could translate into support and votes.

When last year the PLP government announced that it was going to lead “in the spirit of Sir Lynden”, they were not lying, because it appears that the same mass exodus of expatriates we saw at a time under the Pindling era is what the government is trying to recreate.

Take for example, the Foreign Affairs Minister’s recent trip to Freeport – the country’s industrial capital – to announce a prohibition on the further application for work permits by industrial companies there. The apparent attempt to carve out his own 2013 bend or break path of Sir Lynden’s walking shoes on that trip was almost comical were it not so serious.

Never failing to deliver on the racial/ethnic rhetoric, he said: “Some people will plan Bahamians out of the economy in their own country. We don’t intend to preside over that…” Who is “some people” Minister? The “some people” who own the industrial companies in Freeport’s economy that employ thousands of Bahamians through those companies? “Some people” whose foreign direct investments in Freeport already carry staff complements of mostly Bahamian workers? “Some people” who your government did not bring to this country, but are the kinds of “some people” whose money your government will either brag on or beg on, when the need arises?

In any event, when it comes to the present government “leading in the spirit of Sir Lynden”, Prime Minister Christie is no Sir Lynden Pindling. Sir Lynden was in charge of his administrations. Blind Blake can see Mr. Christie is not, because if he was, he would have been the person to announce sweeping changes to the nation’s labour policy, because that policy is not only an immigration matter – that policy will impact the nation and its economy. The Prime Minister directs the policies of his government in a Parliamentary Democracy. His Ministers are supposed to run with those policies and make them happen.

Instead, the first voice we heard on a policy that will change the nation was not the Prime Minister, but one of his Ministers. And then when the obvious firestorm occurred, the Prime Minister made a reactionary statement to the press that was not the same as the Minister’s statement on the issue; creating the familiar hallmark of his governance – widespread confusion.

What Is The Way Forward?

No country can afford to exist in a state of confusion on the matter of its labour policies. If the government were focused on enhancing those policies as part of sound governance, what we are seeing now would not be happening.

Bahamians and expatriates are confused about what The Bahamas is now saying to them and the world. Is The Bahamas saying it ultimately no longer wants expatriate labour? If this is the case, why is this not coming from the nation’s leader? Why would sweeping and critical labour policy changes come as a surprise to Bahamians and expatriates alike, with the Minister who did not consult the private sector prior to his announcements, telling the private sector through the press to essentially shut up with their “commentaries” and help him train Bahamians currently unskilled?

Is the Prime Minister even remotely clued in to the level of uncertainty, alienation and turmoil recent announcements regarding the issuance of work permits in this country have created, and how that type of uncertainty leads to instability in a nation’s economy?

The answer is simple: the reason the government has thrust the country into this kind of precarious situation is that the work permit campaign it is carrying out was not born out of a broader, planned national development policy. It was not born out of reasoned, detailed and comprehensive consultation with the private sector.

This campaign is born out of an agenda of a few in the Cabinet to try to remain politically potent, at the risk of rendering the nation and its economy impotent.

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