Benn under fire
BARBADIANS vented their frustration and concerns over Barbados’ spiralling cost of living in an emotionally charged town hall-style meeting at St George Secondary School Wednesday night, with Minister of Trade and Commerce Senator Haynesley Benn finding himself being pressed for answers.
It was the first of a series of public forums being organized by the Nation Publishing Company to foster debate on burning national issues, of which NATION Editor-in-Chief Kaymar Jordan said the cost of living was “issue number one”.
“The agenda tonight is a people’s agenda. As a nation we must not be afraid to speak out,” Jordan, the chairperson, stated in her opening remarks.
Perspectives of Government, the retail sector, the trade unions, the small business sector and consumer advocates were given by a panel comprising Senator Benn, Celeste Foster, president of the Small Business Association, David Neilands, chairman of the Food Group of the Barbados Chamber of Commerce, Walter Maloney, president of the National Union of Public Workers (NUPW), and Jai Jebodsingh, chairman of the Consumer Protection Committee of the Barbados Association of Retired Persons (BARP). In the audience were several business persons, as well as many working-class Barbadians eager to make an input in the discussion.
Benn said his ministry was engaged in dialogue with “all the stakeholders”, which he felt was the best way to address the problem, and he made a strong appeal for Barbadians to support local manufacturing and agriculture to reduce Barbados’ food import bill, while questioning whether the retail sector was offering the best prices.
But Neilands in turn refuted any accusations of price gouging levelled at the retail sector. In defence, he claimed a profit of only three cents out of the dollar was made by the retailer, and asserted most of the money charged for goods was consumed by other costs entailed in providing the goods.
“The reason our prices [in Barbados] are higher is because we pay people more,” Neilands maintained.
Neilands insisted the consumer had choices and suggested shopping around for the best prices. He also called for price and product ranges to be publicized on a regular basis to inform the choices consumers made.
However, underlining this businessman’s presentation was the call for more dialogue and “a little more constructive discussion about the way things are”, though he cautioned it was “the end of cheap food as we know it”.
Celeste Foster pointed out the small business sector’s concerns had more to do with bureaucracy and lack of transparency in duties. She advocated import substitution.
“In our discussions we find that pricing methodologies are not always relevant to the economic costs and the market price, and that sometimes what needs to happen is that people need to revisit their pricing methodologies,” Foster said.
She advised the consumer to shop around. She said Barbadians had to ask themselves: “Are we content with the cost of living, or the high cost of our living?”
The latter was a question expanded on by Jebodsingh, who charged that Barbadians were living beyond their means. The consumer advocate and BARP representative on the panel warned that Barbados was on the brink of a “serious national crisis”.
In his brief contribution, trade unionist Maloney looked at Barbados’ food distribution chain, wondering whether “the playing field is level”.
He urged other members of civil society to follow his union’s example and go the route of bulk purchasing.
Cries of objection from the crowd threatened to drown the contribution from the floor of St George North MP?Gline Clarke, sometimes making him almost inaudible. There was also a contribution from Senator Jepter Ince, who was in the audience.
But the most engaging contribution of the night came from a businessman who complained to Senator Benn directly about difficulties encountered with the Customs Department in clearing a shipment of orange juice from the Bridgetown Port.