Widely circulated images of Mexican workers entering The Bahamas last week to work on the storm-ravaged Baker’s Bay development sparked public ire for two main reasons: The images came at a time when national tensions are high due to the high rate of unemployment; and they touched on entrenched fears held by many Bahamians about the presence of foreign workers in the country, even in good economic times.
Many were even more offended when they learnt that Bahamasair flew the Mexicans in, as if the airline had somehow been engaged in a treasonous act.
Reactions from many were driven purely by emotionalism, and it seems some were not that concerned about the details of the engagement of the foreign workers.
To be sure, the images of the Mexicans coming in were bad optics at a time when unemployment is believed to be as high as 40 percent.
As far as many Bahamians are concerned, there is no need for anyone to bring in any foreigners to work at this time.
It is easy to make assumptions in ordinary times; it is even easier to do so in extraordinary times when so many are jobless and pained by the economic experiences triggered by COVID-19.
While there is an assumption that hundreds of skilled construction workers are willing and available to work, the key question we sought an answer to is whether this is in fact the case.
We asked Bahamian Contractors Association (BCA) President Michael Pratt whether there is justification for the furor over the Mexicans.
Pratt said that without knowing the specific scope of work the Mexicans will be carrying out, he could not say whether there are enough certified Bahamians who could have done the job.
“I would like to stress that I am concerned about workers having to be brought in, but I am more concerned that at this time, we as a country have not done enough to avoid this from happening,” he told National Review.
“We are addressing this and are working with BTVI (Bahamas Technical and Vocational Institute) and have a registry of internationally certified skilled workers. We are certain that this workforce development would be a key component in our recovery.”
Pratt said it is important that investors reach out to the association when they are looking for workers.
“I am worried that we have to bring workers into our country, but the reason why they brought them in, I don’t know. I don’t know if they needed certified workers. If I sign a contract, I must sometimes present certified workers. I can’t just use anybody from off the streets,” he said.
Pratt said he reached out to some of the original contractors who worked on the Baker’s Bay project and some of them are now working on Eleuthera.
He said there are “a lot of workers in this country, but to put them together at one time to do a particular scope of work may be a challenge to any contractor here, even at a time like this”.
Asked whether the association has gotten many complaints from construction workers on the matter, Pratt said, “There has been some of that.” But he said sufficient information has not come out of Baker’s Bay to determine what its needs are.
Asked whether the association is offended by the importation of labor, he said, “We can only be offended by Baker’s Bay if we are also offended by Albany and all the other developments that hire and bring in foreign workers. That’s standard. That’s been going on in this country for decades. We saw it at Cable Beach when the hotel was built. We saw it at Atlantis, the Point and Baha Mar.
“[B]ear in mind, these developers are bringing in their money to develop projects and they can control to a great extent what happens on their projects and that’s important for us to understand.
“We would prefer they engage as many Bahamian contractors as possible. This comes with one other open item that we have to discuss. We have to get our construction industry to the point where we can license our contractors and properly regulate the industry. Until we do that, we still have a challenge.”
The association’s immediate past president had a far stronger reaction on the matter, however.
Leonard Sands told Tribune Business the decision to permit Baker’s Bay to bring in the Mexican workers was “beyond egregious”.
Sands criticized the association for “not raising the red flag” in objecting to this more strongly and added that the government should have halted Baker’s Bay’s plans without needing to even review its original decision, given The Bahamas’ current economic circumstances.
Baker’s Bay on the weekend released a statement outlining the facts on the hires.
It noted that its construction team includes 420 Bahamian professionals.
It also noted that the 135 Mexicans were instrumental in recovery and rebuilding efforts at its Discovery Land Company sister property in Mexico, after catastrophic hurricane damage of $1.5 billion in 2015.
The Mexicans have been given short-term work permits. Those permits expire on September 30.
Baker’s Bay also pointed out that the foreign workers “will work alongside an increasing number of their fellow Bahamian workmates to complete the work”.
It said, “Supervisors and skilled workers will be transferring significant knowledge and skills to apprentices as a part of the daily efforts. We anticipate a peak total workforce in excess of 1,500 workers.”
Baker’s Bay added, “The collaborative efforts of our construction workforce together with the efforts of the Global Workforce (the Mexicans) will quickly and efficiently enable reopening of Baker’s Bay Golf and Ocean Club. This will serve as a catalyst for recovery of the Abacos’ largest employer.”
It seems to us the government has worked to strike a fair balance in getting the Baker’s Bay rebuilding going.
According to Immigration Minister Elsworth Johnson, there was an original request for 500 work permits.
“However, based on the government’s labor mandate to ensure that Bahamians be given priority for any and all job opportunities, and that Bahamians also make up the vast majority of the onsite labor force, that request was refused and, instead, 135 work permits were granted,” Johnson said in a statement last Friday.
“All work permit applicants are to facilitate technical works, whose skill sets would also be shared with the Bahamian work force.”
Baker’s Bay has an estimated recovery and reconstruction cost in excess of $400 million over the next three years. That will provide a significant boost to Abaco’s recovering economy.
While the relevant authorities must work to ensure the company meets the commitments it made for those short-term work permit grants, and while it is important that they constantly work to ensure qualified Bahamians have a first crack at available opportunities on such projects, we believe that The Bahamas will have a significant net gain as a result of Baker’s Bay being rebuilt.
If we can move beyond the emotionalism and weigh the benefits against what we give up, we would likely see more that certain decisions are ultimately in our collective best interest.