AG: The Bahamas must ride out the storm

AG: The Bahamas must ride out the storm
Attorney General Carl Bethel. (FILE PHOTO)

Senate debates amendments to Immigration Act 

NASSAU, BAHAMAS – Attorney General Carl Bethel said yesterday that the passage of the Immigration (Amendment) Bill, 2019, is critical for The Bahamas to remain competitive and ensure continued foreign inward investment activity, which promotes jobs, economic developmental prospects and other opportunities for Bahamians.

“To make things easier for them to come and help us develop our economy,” he said during debate in the Upper Chamber.

“However, more than this, it’s my view that there is a critical need for a concrete legal amendment to the immigration law and this need has been brought to the fore by economic necessity.”

The Immigration (Amendment) Bill, 2019, was passed in the House of Assembly last month.

The Bill provides exemptions for work permits in The Bahamas.

Bethel stressed that the government was acting in the best interest of the Bahamian people and the economy.

He also said that beyond the ease of doing business in the country, the amendments are critical to address a serious challenge that The Bahamas’ offshore sector faces.

According to Bethel, The Bahamas, like the majority of offshore financial services sectors, have been forced under the threat of blacklisting and “economic strangulation” to pass legislation to meet the requirements of international financial regulatory watchdogs.

He insisted that The Bahamas must find alternative ways to preserve its competitiveness.

“If we leave the old and restrictive regime in place, it is clear that we lose a ton of business and such an exodus of offshore business would decimate Bahamian employment in the offshore sector; in offshore banks and trusts, and investments funds.

“Such an exodus of business, which is in fact in the unvarnished truth a goal of the OECD (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development)and the EU (European Union), would have a devastating impact on the banking sector and hundreds, if not thousands of good paying — even high paying jobs — for hundreds and thousands of Bahamians professionals in the financial sector.”

The Minnis administration’s mission is to ride out the storm and make it easier for business to generation activity in The Bahamas; not the opposite, Bethel said.

The opposition has called the bill regressive and suggested it would take The Bahamas back to pre-1967.

According to the proposed legislation, work visas or short-term work visas for professionals who enter The Bahamas for less than 14 days for a specific purpose would be exempted from requiring a visa.

Attending or participating in a conference or business meeting, among other purposes, meets the criteria of the bill.

The bill would also establish a BH-1B visa and a BH-4S permit.

During debate, Senator Ranard Henfield said while he believes the passage of the bill would signal to the international community that the ease of doing business in The Bahamas has greatly improved, but “at what cost to this administration’s legacy I ask”.

“Unfortunately, the public’s perception, as I have said before, is that we the Parliament of the day have already opened the door for foreigners to come to this country and work via the Commercial Enterprises Act, with a work permit deemed as granted after 14 days

“While I see the value in facilitating new industries, which will be forced to train Bahamians for these new fields, the public’s perception is their reality.

“Madam President, as a practicing attorney and the founder of the junior bar committee of the Bahamas Bar Association, pray tell how I or any practicing attorney for that matter in clear conscious could remain silent when an amendment is before Parliament to permit foreign attorneys to work in the capacity of an attorney under the guise of a business meeting for 14-day intervals as often as he or she designers.”

Henfield said the authority of immigration officials to refuse entry is not sufficient control.

Meanwhile, Senator Jobeth Coleby-Davis said despite the narrative of the government the Bahamian public should be increasingly concerned about the threat the amendments pose to certain professions in the nation, inclusive of the legal, accountant and medical professions.

“While I understand the ease of doing business concept and the need to remove some of the unnecessary hassles that are imposed because of the requirement for work permits, even in situations when there is just a need to enter the country for meetings, seminars and conferences,” she said.

“As it relates to the current process, in some instances this amendment is just putting in black and white, in the law what may have already been the practice.

“However, Madame President, this section 32a is just too wide and goes beyond what is expected by some professions to be exclusive for citizens, permanent residents or legitimate work permit holders.”

Section 32 of the bill deals with exemptions of work permits for an individual engaging in a certain activity in The Bahamas for a period no exceeding 14 days.

Some of these activities include: attending a conference or seminar as a participant, attending a trade show or summit, working as a non-executive director of a business being carried on in The Bahamas, where that person is not involved in the day-to-day operations; attending a business meeting with a local company in a range of capacities, among other circumstances.

Coleby-Davis said the policy is too wide and appears to lean on the side of the “ease of free movement of people”.

She suggested that oversight of process to ensure individuals who visit The Bahamas under the exempted criteria of work permits are compliant could present a serious challenge.