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PURELY POLITICAL: Govt’s dilemma

Albert Brandford

PURELY POLITICAL: Govt’s dilemma

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Government has found itself on the horns of a dilemma, caught between the competing interests of two key areas of the economy – the hospitality sector and the food producers.

It hinges on the insistence by the Barbados Agricultural Society (BAS) that the Barbados Hotel & Tourism Association (BHTA) sign a memorandum of understanding (MOU), essentially agreeing to protect local producers before their membership can access the Sandals-type concessions promised by Government.

The BHTA, which had an input in the draft, now says the MOU is not a prerequisite for accessing the conditions, but has nevertheless committed to seeking a mutually beneficial solution.

It is an unfortunate stand-off that cannot augur well for either party, both of whom for as long as I can remember have been preaching the virtues, nay, the necessity, of a symbiotic relationship.

Even if in the times of plenty there might have been some slippage by both sides in terms of the importation of select items in response to insistent client demand or a drop in quality by producers in a momentary lapse, there can be no excuse now in these tough economic times for failure to recognise that we are all in this boat together.

It is against that background that Government has found itself having to choose between the Scylla of the farmers and the Charybdis of the tourism industry.

Prime Minister Freundel Stuart would appreciate the Greek mythology recounted by Homer, who recorded that Odysseus was forced to choose which monster to confront while passing the Strait of Messina: Scylla, the rock shoal, or Charybdis, the whirlpool.

He could remind his Minister of Finance that Odysseus chose to pass by Scylla and lose only a few sailors, rather than risk the loss of his entire ship in the whirlpool that was Charybdis.

Some people, especially within the BHTA, seem to have forgotten that it was the Minister of Finance Chris Sinckler, who proposed the MOU, with the BAS and the Barbados Manufacturers’ Association (BMA), as one of the conditions of the grant of the concessions along with hotel staff training.

He made the announcement at the September 10 third quarterly general meeting of the BHTA at the Hilton Barbados resort.

And it seemed that almost immediately upon hearing the Minister of Finance, the newly elected BHTA president Sunil Chatrani expressed “reservations” about the MOU and told reporters he did not think it was “necessary”.

“What I don’t want to happen is to go into negotiations as a condition of signing an MOU, of having to sign an MOU to accept these conditions. Sandals certainly didn’t have to do this. I don’t think we should be expected to do it either.”

But while the MOU is not a binding document, merely a “gentleman’s agreement”, the BAS had genuine concerns about the BHTA’s real commitment to agriculture and manufacturing.

“Look at the consequences down the road,” suggested the BAS’ chief executive officer James Paul, who is also a Government backbencher in the House of Assembly.

“If they do not want to buy from a local agricultural producer, whether or not it is fruit and vegetables or poultry . . . it would eventually expand to other products.

“They have a commitment. We cannot reap any real economic benefits by giving the hotel sector concessions unless they are prepared to support and create employment in other sectors in Barbados.’

Unfortunately, the public debate is being framed as an unreasonable farmers’ body asking hoteliers to sign an unnecessary MOU which a foreign concern was not asked to do.

Sinckler had made it clear to hoteliers that with the concessions, Government had to put structures in place to prevent abuse.

According to the press reports, while fielding questions from the floor, the minister said it was important to guard against a black market in fruit, vegetables and other items emerging at the expense of local production.

So it seems clear to me, if not to anyone in the BHTA, that it is the Government, and not the BAS, that must be painted as the cold-hearted villain holding out for an undeserved reward in the form of a signed MOU for them to get the concessions.

Despite the sometimes overblown rhetoric of the producers in making their case and foreseeing their potential destruction around every corner, it does not take an Einstein to see the damage that could be done to non-sugar agriculture, particularly to growers of much in demand items such as tomatoes and cabbage.

Sinckler has to hold the BHTA to their commitment.

• Albert Brandford is an independent polical correspondent.