Our Customs well beyond ‘facilitation’
For the coming financial year, we want to work towards the stabilization of the debt situation, so that we move from adding digits to the debt ratios to start subtracting. Once you get it stabilized by doing the measures that we are doing, then it is going to fall; so we can expect that.
We will look at other aspects of our economy that can contribute to that, which entails a reform of the public sector and a reform of the real economic sector, in terms of areas of sugar, commerce [and] business facilitation for investment. Those are the things that we intend
to focus on.
–– Minister of Finance Chris Sinckler, in an interview last week, previewing today’s Budget.
Against the backdrop of a debilitating protest by workers employed by the Customs & Excise Department, we await with bated breath our Minister of Business Donville Inniss’ contribution to this week’s Budget Debate.
In fact, we find it rather peculiar that the goodly minister, who has been very outspoken in recent weeks about everything from the University of the West Iindies’ “coronation” of Sir Hilary Beckles to the still to be resolved garbage haulers’ strike, has said nary a word on the costly demonstration by workers at both of this island’s main ports of entry.
Granted, these problems are nothing new, and they will not be resolved by the waving of any magic wand by any one minister or official, but with the Government’s 2015 Budget largely predicated on the need to achieve stability and growth, this country simply cannot afford having such protests drag on.
The Government, therefore, needs to grab the proverbial bull by the horns and seek to wrestle the problems affecting the Customs & Excise Department to the ground. It may even have to enlist the support of the Opposition on this one, since both are equally to blame for the raging dinosaur that has now taken hold of our national airport and seaport offices, where some unionized officers are said to be behaving as if they are “untouchable”, or, worse yet, “lords unto themselves”, who will not allow their chains to be yanked by any Government or authority figure, for that matter.
With all due respect to the 300 plus workers currently employed at Customs, as well as the three unions presently acting on their behalf, we hasten to add that all should not be painted with the same brush. Neither are we suggesting that there aren’t any legitimate reasons for ensuring that all i’s are dotted and t’s crossed in relation to the pending transition to the Barbados Revenue Authority (BRA).
Indeed, BRA may never be a one-size-fits-all for any group of Government employees.
However, we have been struck by the militancy of some Customs officers who are vehemently opposed to joining BRA and appear willing to fly in the face of even this island’s Prime Minister if they have to, to achieve their desired result, which is for things to remain as they are.
Without having access to all the relevant documentation, it also strikes us as odd that four other revenue collection agencies, namely the Value Added Tax (VAT) Division, the Land Tax Department, the Inland Revenue Department and the Licensing Authority were all absorbed into BRA on April 1 as scheduled.
Customs & Excise remains the only agency for which the changeover remains elusive. So far, the transition date has been changed not once, but twice; and Cabinet is yet to agree on a third.
But, surely, the tail cannot be allowed to wag the dog forever, especially when such inaction costs millions in business for the island.
It certainly does give credence to the argument that privatization of certain aspects of Government-run operations may well be in order, if only to deal once and for all with those forces seemingly dead set against changes to the status quo, which, from all reports, has negatively impacted businesses.
“Our members have been in contact with us over the last several days telling us of the effects on their businesses. Their inability to clear goods in a reasonable time for both sale and use in manufacturing processes is costing them additional demurrage charges, as well as potential production downtime,” warned Barbados Chamber of Commerce and Industry president Tracey Shuffler, in a Press release last month.
Since then, the cries of businesses have got louder, now reaching the stage where many are warning of job cuts and price increases.
A “very concerned” owner of A1 Supermarkets, Andrew Bynoe, told Barbados TODAY late last week that while he was able to absorb the extra storage costs in the initial phase, that was no longer the case. In fact, Mr Bynoe said, any further delays that had a cost attachment “will have to be passed on”.
“In the cases of refrigerated containers, it costs us extra to have that container plugged in at the Port. These charges are compounding, and therefore whereas before we have been absorbing, the time has come when we will have to pass these charges to the consumers. One of the direct results will be an increase in the cost of food,” he said.
Mr Bynoe said while he did not want to consider lay-offs at this time “certainly, if the matter is not resolved in a reasonable time”, then it would have to be. He acknowledged there would be “a ripple effect” on the island.
“We have had food spoiled, which we have had to throw away. So it is a great inconvenience and great cost. We have thrown away [items] out of one container so far, and it cost us an extra $5,000,” he complained.
His cry was echoed by representatives of some of this island’s leading distributors, who have described a situation as noting short of untenable.
And, while it is not our intention to pour cold water on the Minister of Finance’s four-hour-plus presentation earlier this evening, his flowery talk about growth predicated on business facilitation and investment becomes difficult to stomach in an environment where public servants continue to blatantly refuse to carry out management’s orders until they deem it convenient so to do, and in which tonnes of goods and produce are allowed to just sit and become dry rot on the floors of mainly our seaport.
Our suggestion is that instead of engaging in hours of senseless debate this week on the Budget, all our interests would be better served were our politicians to discuss an urgent solution to its ongoing wrangling at Customs.