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FOR WHAT IT’S WORTH: One step forward . . .

Dr Frances Chandler

FOR WHAT IT’S WORTH: One step forward . . .

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We’re a country of contradictions. We’re continually told that we must be competitive.
If ever we needed to be competitive and to earn foreign exchange, it is now. But the recent uproar about a private company using its own labour to load goods for export would indicate that we’re not serious about making the changes that would facilitate export trade. I agree with the CEO of Insurance Corporation of Barbados Ltd that management must be free to make good strategic decisions that make them more competitive and productive.
I really don’t see the evidence of unions encouraging productivity, nor do I think Government is serious about increased productivity when they could shut down the island for half day a few weeks ago when even lay people knew that Tropical Storm Chantal had passed since early that morning.
In 2011, a US$11.8m Government /Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) Competitiveness Programme was launched. It was described as “a necessary fillip to improve the competitiveness of the island’s economy in light of the challenges being experienced as a result of the ongoing economic crunch . . . ”. The programme would, among other things, improve the export potential of the economy and facilitate the attraction of more private investment.
It was further noted that “most of these benefits will materialize when people change their way of doing things and make adjustments in their attitudes and this is something that will take time”. Well, time is running out, but we seem to lack the will to remove the stumbling blocks, some of which would appear to revolve around the attitudes of Port workers and their union. Other areas where resistance seems to have been met are the Immigration and Town Planning departments.
For years we’ve heard of the woes of doing business at the Port; for example, the fact that a certain number of containers unloaded constitutes a day’s work, even though the task may be completed in two hours or so. Then there is the overtime ($3.4m in 2006) and travel paid to customs and health officers. Apparently, if you want to have goods cleared in a timely manner, overtime must be paid in advance or you run the risk of having to wait at least a week to have the job done. It seems as if Port workers are laws unto themselves, and in my opinion, have held the country to ransom for years.
As the Competitiveness Programme coordinator said: “We can spend US$11.8 million on the latest equipment and technology, but if workers do not see the need for themselves to be more productive, then we really would have embarked on a futile exercise”. Why would the Port workers, enjoying the employment terms just described, see the need to be more productive? And is the union trying to improve the situation? It doesn’t appear so, since these workers, with the backing of the union, are now to be paid $22 000 for work done by the private company’s workers.
In 2007, an IDB-funded study aimed at strengthening logistics and trade facilitation identified high port costs and high dwell time for incoming containers (42 per cent delivered after 11 days), high container handling costs (Barbados port is 259 per cent above benchmarked ports) as areas to be improved. Productivity systems of compensation to replace the current compensation arrangement and customs/health overtime were recommended.
It seems there has been some reform in customs and excise tax, but in general, the report seems to have been ignored. Meanwhile, we moan about the cost of living and we hear that the private sector is lazy, and needs to expand into exports, but is it surprising that they are hesitant? I certainly know of one agricultural initiative that was stymied by all these hindrances and eventually fell by the wayside. I’m sure there are others.
The World Economic Forum recently identified Barbados’ weaknesses which must be corrected: first and foremost, the attitude of workers as well as the inefficiency of Government bureaucracy, noting that public servants must make a contribution to economic development.
I see that Sir Frank Alleyne recently said what I have been saying for years in the Senate, that public officers should be on contract. But it was always dismissed as “impossible”. Let us look within and correct our shortcomings and stop looking outside to apportion blame for our problems.
• Dr Frances Chandler is a former Independent senator.