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2004-02-28 20:20:54

The Bahamas And International Affairs

Trade Unionists Concerned About Labour Office In Haiti

Our neighbour to the south, the Republic of Haiti has been embroiled in problems, which have become acute in recent times. Haiti also has had a relationship with The Bahamas for quite some time, and usually what happens there also impacts us in some form or another. Recently, the Minister of Foreign Affairs has been commuting back and forth trying to work with the CARICOM group of nations to assist Haiti's stability and to solve some of their economic and political problems, as well as our Prime Minister, the Rt. Honourable Perry Christie. Following up on their recent activities it seems as though the government is considering seriously setting up an office at our Embassy in the Republic of Haiti to process persons from that country who might wish to work in The Bahamas. Quite naturally that is of serious concern to segments of our labour force and there are spokespersons from the National Congress of Trade Unions, who have said loud and clear that they do not think that that is a good move. The president of the NCTU, Mr. Pat Bain issued a statement recently to the media that says that they are in direct disagreement with that action.

Frank Carter, the first Vice President of the NCTU, is best known as the former president of the AAAWU (Airport Airline and Allied Workers Union), and is a labour consultant with Frank Carter and Associates, and also Chairman of the Education Committee of the NCTU. Mr. Carter and Mr. Pat Bain were recent guests on "Contact," the radio programme is hosted by Mike Smith on Love 97.

Mr. Mike Smith: The Government says that they may set up an office at our Embassy in Haiti that would essentially process labourers from that country who might wish to work in The Bahamas. Your organization thinks that is a bad idea?

Mr. Frank Carter: It is not a totally bad idea, but we certainly believe that there is always the Devil in the details. Firstly, we believe very strongly that the government should have met with us, consulted with labour as well as employers, as well as with the official opposition. When it comes to foreign policy, we must try to have consensus, and the only way in which you can have consensus is if there is prior discussion before a policy is announced or enunciated. There was no such discussion with The National Congress, I don't know if there was a discussion with any labour group or with the other labour group. So we are certainly disappointed and we have expressed that disappointment to the Honourable Minister of Foreign Affairs, who has really been - usually - very open with the Trade Union, but in this instance he made certain public announcements that certainly have given us a lot to be concerned about.

Mr. Smith: Why are you particularly concerned?

Mr. Carter: There are a number of reasons why Union Leaders would be concerned. We don't know exactly who he has in mind, what type of workers would be coming in, we don't know how many workers will be coming in, we don't know - at the moment - whether unemployment is slightly up, greatly up, slightly down or greatly down over the last two years. We just don't have the present statistics as president Bain expressed, he believes as I do, that Bahamians want to work. So, first of all, we must create jobs for our own people. That is the government's responsibility - that is certainly the responsibility of the Congress, to see that Bahamians are given first opportunity for the jobs that do exist.

Mr. Smith: The government feels that this is one way of regularizing what has been a vexing problem for quite some time, and that is the illegal immigrants coming through the back door and eventually being asked for permits by persons seeking to hire them. This would give the government some form of control and some form of official statistics on them.

Mr. Carter: I think we all agree that we must control migration to our country. We must know how many nationals are in the country, we must know how many foreigners are in the country, and we must have a good grip on the amount of people legal and illegal in our country, Bahamian and non-Bahamian. We must know who is in the country at all times. I believe it is a question of national security that the government is totally aware of who is in the country. At the same time, while we have to come to grips with an illegal migration, most especially the Haitian problem. I don't think we should just single out the illegal Haitians, but we must control our borders and prevent all from coming in illegally. We must also get more assistance and better assistance from the United States, because we just happen to be the buffer between the United States and Haiti and Cuba. We believe very strongly that the great majority of Haitians and Cubans want to get to Florida, The Bahamas just happens to be in the way.

Mr. Smith: Yes. But we have these illegal immigrants in The Bahamas now, if you went to Abaco, for example, at 7:30 in the morning, in mass you see the ferries carrying - I wouldn't say that they are illegal - but foreign labourers to jobs in the cays. If you did the same thing in north Eleuthera and other areas, Exuma even, and then of course here in New Providence the immigration authorities are somewhat more vigilant, but there is still this strong presence in the construction industry in particular, in domestic help, gardening and other areas and now they are moving into vendor positions, they are already here.

Mr. Carter: They are here and there is no reason why the Department of Statistics with the help of immigration, the defence force and the police can't get a good grip on how many are here. I think that is the first step in controlling this.

Mr. Smith: How do you actually do that?

Mr. Carter: We need to go in the bushes; we know where they come out in the morning. So, we should also know where they are going to in the evening. There is no reason why we can't go on job sites, especially the larger job sites, going to the cays in Abaco, or going to the farms in North Eleuthera or other parts of The Bahamas. We have to have that concerted effort to first know how many illegal workers are in this country, that's the first step. The second step is to look at the needs - employers must be honest - in terms of stating their real needs. The Department of Labour, as well as the Department of Immigration must be more vigilant in terms of monitoring and policing their employees, before they issue certificates, it has to start at those two departments after we know how many are needed by the farmers, fishers or contractors.

Mr. Smith: Your president said that he senses frustration, obviously there must be a feeling in the departments you've just mentioned that they cannot cope and do, what you are suggesting be done?

Mr. Carter: They may not be able to do it all at once, but they have to be able to give a scientific estimate of the amount of foreign workers in the country. We can also count the amount of non-Bahamians in our schools; we can also keep statistics on the amount of foreigners that visit our health-care facilities. So, there must be coordination by the various government departments, so we can get a better grip on how many foreign workers we have in the country. The Department of Statistics should release on a timely basis how many work permits have been issued in various parts of the country. Let us know. If there are seasonal needs, let us know. Again, I say the Devil is in the details and we need to have more information coming from the government, the Department of Statistics, the Department of Labour, and the Department of Immigration.

We must have that necessary information to help us better understand government's policy. That is one of the problems; we don't seem to get information from the government on a timely basis to help us give consideration or be very thoughtful as to whether or not we approve or disapprove on some policy or part of a policy of the government. But again, if there is prior consultation on important issues - and I think part of the problem is the government looks at the Trade Union and says, 'they are only concerned with organized workers,' that maybe a part of the problem, but we have to be concerned about all workers in the country.

We don't want - as Brother Bain stated - a lot of migration where the hourly rate for workers falls below a particular level, we don't want Bahamians displaced, we want improved standards for workers and we have to put Bahamians first in The Bahamas. Where else can Bahamians be first? We must step up our training programme, if there is a shortage in construction workers - if we can't find Bahamian construction workers, let us know the number of shortages. How then do we direct more young people to get into the construction phase?

Mr. Smith: You will get the argument that a contractor who has a job and who has a penalty attached to that job in terms of costs needs the workers today, it is all well and good for the Trade Union Organization to be concerned that workers may be displaced, but it is not helping that particular contractor if he or she cannot find skilled or unskilled workers to assist in finishing their project in real time.

Mr. Carter: It is a real problem. How well do we address this problem? I believe we need to start with publishing statistics. How many housing starts every month? So everyone can get a grip on the construction industry. Part of the problem again is not following trends, if you know the trend, and again there is no quick solution to getting a master carpenter or a master mason, it takes time. We don't have proper apprenticeship programmes in place. What is the relationship between BTVI and the contractors? What is the relationship between BTVI and the high schools and the councillors at the various schools? What is the relationship between the department of labour and the contractors? So we have to do business a little differently, it hasn't worked. I agree with you that if a contractor bids for a job - lets say he can build a house for $50,000.00 and has two months to do it - he needs labour immediately. So, how then do we make certain that all of the construction workers are registered? How do we keep an active registry? There has to be coordination amongst the various departments of government - the Contractors Association - if there is one - I know there used to be one, I don't know how active they are - the Unions, the schools.

Mr. Smith: You would say that the government should literally halt any further action on this plan and meet with the Union representatives and the Labour representatives in the country first, before they move ahead on any further discussion or action on this particular policy.

Mr. Carter: Yes, but I would also include the other social partners - the employers - most especially the farmers, the contractors and we can look at other employers who have employed a lot of migrant workers.

Contact is aired Mondays at 8:00 p.m. on Love 97. Comments can be e-mailed to mdsmith@coralwave.com

Mike Smith, The Bahama Journal 

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