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MONTEGO BAY, Jamaica – Sandals Resorts International (SRI) says it reserves the right to initiate all legal options, including suing for slander and libel to protect its good name as the war of words continues with the Antigua and Barbuda government.
In a statement, SRI said “our main concern is the impact this is having on our 700 team members and their families . . . and many of whom have been a part of the Sandals family since inception”.
The row between the Gaston Brown government and SRI began last year when the two were engaged in a public exchange over Sandals’ retention of sales tax income under what St John’s called “an unlawful agreement”.
Sandals collects an Antigua and Barbuda Sales Tax (ABST) from its customers and, according to Prime Minister Browne, keeps 65 per cent of the yields.
The government is trying to change this but Sandals chairman, Gordon “Butch” Stewart, is claiming it means the rescinding of a concession agreement with the hotel chain.
The agreement was signed in 2009 with the now opposition United Progressive Party (UPP) administration. However, Browne’s administration made it clear to SRI about its unwillingness to continue with the arrangement. The hotel claimed that this was a blatant breach of the agreement and called on the Antiguan government to revisit its decision.
On July 14, Sandals informed the Antigua government that it would close the 380-room Sandals Grand hotel for three months from September 20 to December 17 for essential maintenance work.
But Browne claimed that SRI’s decision to close the hotel was sabotage and an “act of hostility” designed to win tax concessions from the government.
“Some people might say they (Sandals) have four properties and can hold you accountable. I look at it from the perspective that Sandals has a substantive amount of its overall global inventory in St Lucia. So I think the likelihood of them doing something similar in Antigua – I’m not so sure that’s possible,” he said.
In the statement issued Thursday, SRI said that it has 22 hotels in eight different territories throughout the Caribbean, and in 35 years of doing business with numerous governments “we have always operated at the highest standards and in the most ethical and transparent manner”.
“As an upstanding and conscientious corporate citizen, we have always sought to work in harmony with the various stakeholders. Therefore, we are appalled at the unwarranted and vicious attack that has been launched against the company and its Chairman by Prime Minister Gaston Browne and his Government, after plans to upgrade the resort in Antigua and Barbuda were revealed – news that should have been cause for celebration for any investor-savvy administration as it will be beneficial to both the country as well as the resort staff and their families.”
SRI said that it is no stranger to Antigua and Barbuda nor its people having “panted our flag here over a quarter of a century ago when we took over a floundering 99-room hotel . . . and over the years transformed it into a world-class, five-star resort and conference centre.
The SRI has also defended its decision to close down the hotel to carry out renovations and dismissed suggestions that the move was aimed at getting back at the government as a result of the present disagreement between them.
“If the Prime Minister and his government are indeed genuinely concerned about the people working here in Antigua then cease the unnecessary threats, posturing and false accusations and let’s work together to ensure that the maintenance work, which we have agreed to reduce from five months to three months, takes place as quickly and with as little disruption as possible.
“Sandals never has and never will be intimidated. It is not in the nature of our company, nor the nearly 15 000 proud team members who make up the Sandals family in Antigua and Barbuda and globally, and who continue to make our company the most sought after product on the planet. Indeed it will not be long before a number of new countries soon welcome the Sandals brand as well.”
Earlier this week, the Antigua and Barbuda parliament approved an amendment to the Investment Authority Bill making it mandatory for large hotels to give notice of their intention to close.
The debate came on the heels of the announcement by SRI that it was closing for three months to carry out renovations and the government said that the legislation is intended to provide protection to employees within the hotel sector.
The government said that all stakeholders, including trade unions, should have at least two months’ notice of the closure of these hotels for renovations and that they run the risk of losing concessions granted to them.
Leader of Government Business Lennox Weston told legislators the bill simply codifies good business practices.
“We are codifying in law to make sure that all actors know that in the hotel industry if you have roughly a 100 rooms or more and you intend to close for two or more months, you should notify all parties.
“You couldn’t find something as non-contentious as that. I mean it is really good business practice,’ he added.
However, Opposition Leader and former finance minister, Harold Lovell, disagreed, saying the amendment “is really designed to use state power as a tool for intimidation.
“It is bad for the economy of Antigua and Barbuda, it will kill further investment, not only local investors but foreign investors,” he added. (CMC)