Former Prime Minister Hubert Ingraham said he was “distressed and disappointed” to learn that a Free National Movement government, a party that has fought for equality before the law for all citizens, would implement a “pointedly discriminatory” provision in the Fisheries Bill, 2020, which prevents the foreign spouses of Bahamians from engaging in commercial fishing.
In a letter to the editor, Ingraham said he was moved to publicly support the position taken by East Grand Bahama MP Peter Turnquest on the matter.
When Turnquest contributed to debate on the Fisheries Bill last week, he said it is a slippery slope to ban foreign spouses of Bahamians from fishing
The bill reads: “No person shall engage in fishing, or be employed on a commercial fishing vessel for fishing other than sportsfishing in the fisheries waters; and use or be employed on a commercial fishing vessel licensed under this act for fishing other than charter sportsfishing, unless that person is a citizen of The Bahamas.”
Ingraham said, “I lament the position taken by the government on this matter.
“The provision excluding spouses of Bahamians from commercial fishing tarnishes the codification of the fisheries law.
“This offending provision, with an obscenely outrageous penalty, will overwhelmingly, if not exclusively, have a negative impact upon Bahamian women married to foreign nationals who are engaged in the fishing sector.
“It will have widespread ripple effects on human rights of persons legally present in our country with an unrestricted right to work.”
Ingraham pointed to the decades-long fight for equality for women by figures like Janet Bostwick, who “cried in the wilderness” for equity for Bahamian women and their foreign-born spouses and children.
The former prime minister highlighted his administration’s decision to put in law a provision for spousal permits guaranteeing the right of the non-Bahamian spouses of all Bahamians, men and women, to be employed and/or otherwise gainfully engaged in all endeavors and sectors of the Bahamian economy for five years.
The individuals would then qualify to obtain permanent resident status with the unrestricted right to work and later citizenship.
“And we ensured nationality or permanent resident applications for the offspring of such marriages born overseas were routinely approved,” he said.
“While not the ultimate ideal, the spousal permit placed Bahamian women on a more equal footing with Bahamian men as regards the ability of their foreign-born male spouses to work in our country.
“I am therefore especially disappointed and distressed to learn that the party, likely caving to popular sentiment, stands ready to tarnish the party’s distinguished record in support of equality before the law for all our citizens with the introduction of a pointedly discriminatory provision affecting the foreign-born spouses of Bahamian women,” he said.
“I am fully aware of the legitimate concerns of some Bahamian fishermen, particularly those from Spanish Wells and Long Island, with the non-sustainable fishing practices reportedly employed by some non-Bahamian spouses, particularly with regard to but not limited to conching.
“And, I am aware of allegations that some contract marriages with Bahamian women to facilitate their employment in the fisheries sector for a season and soon leave without a trace. I am, however, not as aware of individuals charged before our courts for either of these infractions.
“Surely, there must be a better and more effective way for the government to monitor and enforce fisheries practices and to monitor marriages of convenience rather than indiscriminately excluding all non-Bahamian spouses of Bahamian citizens from being employed in an entire sector of our economy.”
Ingraham added: “Peter Turnquest, like a goodly number of others now or recently in the Cabinet of the government of The Bahamas, entered frontline politics as captain’s picks in the Australian sense.
“I am satisfied that Peter Turnquest, who, like Duane Sands and others whose names I choose not to record, represent our core values, and while no longer around the table, will continue to have their voices heard.”
The Fisheries Bill, 2020, which would repeal the current Fisheries Resources (Jurisdiction and Conservation) Act, 1977, outlines the broad strokes for a new fishing management and conservation regime in The Bahamas.
Under the bill, no operator of a commercial fishing vessel shall allow a person who is not a citizen of The Bahamas to engage in fishing in Bahamian waters or use a vessel other than for charter sportsfishing.
A person who contravenes this section is liable on conviction to a fine not exceeding $250,000 or imprisonment for a term not exceeding four years or both.
Minister of Agriculture and Marine Resources Michael Pintard, while defending the bill in Parliament last week amid claims of discrimination, said Bahamians missed the opportunity to correct gender-based discrimination in two failed gender equality referenda.
“The discussion of the Fisheries Bill is not the next opportunity to relitigate that particular issue,” Pintard said.
“That’s not what this bill is about. And so, I stand in solidarity with Bahamian men and women who deserve to have equal treatment under the law.”
According to Ingraham, the law already requires that all fishing boats must be owned by Bahamian citizens.
“One would expect that vessels’ owners must be responsible for dictating fishing practices employed by their employees on their boat.”
He continued, “The observance and policing of our fisheries laws and regulations should not be limited to excluding a single category of individuals from being gainfully employed in a sector of the economy, particularly when such individuals hold an immigration status permitting their engagement in the economy without restriction.
“Removing and restricting rights of one particular class of persons to prevent possible infraction by some in that class, is never acceptable. That is why governments are required and expected to police laws and policies to ensure their enforcement.
“And, it should not be lost on us that the potential harm to members of our society by the introduction of the proposed discriminatory provision in the Fisheries Act will not relieve the Royal Bahamas Police Force, the Royal Bahamas Defence Force or our immigration authorities of their duty and responsibilities to enforce the laws of our country.”
The bill, which was passed in the House of Assembly last week, will be debated in the Senate today.