NASSAU, BAHAMAS – As the Government continues negotiations into the country’s accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO), a local businessman on Monday spoke out against the move.
Rupert Roberts, the owner of Super Value food stores, Quality Supermarkets and a paper manufacturing plant, told the media during a press conference hosted by the Bahamians Against the WTO group, that the WTO will not positively impact local businesses.
“I think WTO will wipeout all local manufacturing,” Roberts said. “It will wipe out thousands and thousands of jobs. I don’t see how they can say they are not going to reduce the duties when they have already started.
“They started with me.”
Roberts’ comments came on the heels of remarks made by Zhivargo Laing, the Chief WTO negotiator for The Bahamas, who claimed that Roberts does not support the WTO and is under an ‘illusion’.
But yesterday, Roberts said Laing could have communicated his concerns much better.
“When I pick up the newspaper, it’s hard for me to realize that Mr. Laing and myself are in the same party. It just doesn’t seem like two people in the same party can disagree so violently,” Roberts said.
The mega foodstore owner also spoke of the recent tariff reductions which were implemented as a part of WTO membership preparations.
Roberts spoke of the tariff cut involving imported paper, which was reduced from 45 percent to 25 percent in the 2017-2018 budget. The cut impacted his plant that manufactures bathroom tissue for Super Value and other stores.
“When he reduced the duty, he should have told me what was going on,” Roberts said. “We are going to take the duty from you and see if you can survive and see if you can compete with the two great giants from the North in your paper factory. I don’t think we can without the protective tariff,” Roberts lamented.
He further noted, “If the water companies have 100 per cent protective tariff, Blanco Bleach has 60 per cent and the drink companies have 60 per cent, they’re all going be taken away. If it’s not going to be taken away, let Mr. Laing restore our [tariff on imported paper] today and restore some credibility, [restore] some faith and we will watch what he is doing and maybe we can listen to what he says.”
Meanwhile, The Bahamians Against the WTO group is in full support of Roberts and on Monday, the group released a statement condemning Laing’s comments.
“Mr. Roberts is a stellar businessman who employs thousands of Bahamians across the archipelago. He is entitled to his views, which we in Bahamians Against the WTO support,” the statement said.
“Laing says that retail is off the table in this negotiation but he does not seem to understand the rules of engagement.
“You cannot reserve this aspect of your economy. This is what the WTO is after and we have seen it in every other country that is a part of the WTO.”
The Group said that they are calling on the government to ‘come clean’ on the WTO and for those in Cabinet to say what benefits are there for The Bahamas to join.
At last update, during the 4th meeting of the working party on the Accession, Brent Symonette, the Minister of Financial Services, Trade and Industry and Immigration affirmed that The Bahamas will continue to deliberate in its accession to ensure that WTO membership provides Bahamians with opportunities for meaningful participation in the ownership and prosperity of their economy.
Symonette noted that The Bahamas has a small population and a relatively open economy which highlights certain vulnerabilities, sensitivities and economic development needs, all of which must be considered during negotiations.
He stressed that any external shocks to such a vulnerable economy can set the country back significantly.