THE ‘NETTE EFFECT: Held ‘hostage’ by Customs
JUST DAYS before Christmas, I made a mistake of epic proportion by venturing into a state-controlled agency to do business.
I went at the eleventh hour to collect a barrel in the Bridgetown Port and as it turned out, what I calculated would be a few hours ended up in an entire day confined to a glass room.
I had been convinced that I could make the trip without too much fallout after reading an article citing chief executive officer David Jean-Marie that there would be extra staff and extended hours in readiness for the season. I was further inspired by the advertisement outlining the hours of business.
I never imagined it would turn into an all-day event of sitting, sighing and suppressing screams of frustration. I arrived just after 11 a.m. and after the initial paperwork and paying a small processing fee at the entrance, I continued to the collection point, stopped, presented the papers and was directed to a room.
As soon as I entered that room, I started counting heads, something I do whenever I go into a bank or any place of business where there is a queue and I suspect I may be a while. I stopped counting after I reached the 20s and resigned myself to a maximum of three hours, a gross underestimation of the ability of some to waste other people’s time. I gave my name to the woman behind the desk and settled into one of the joined seats.
Every 15 minutes or so, a name or two would be blared over the intercom and those persons disappeared from the room into one of the cubicles manned by a customs officer on the outside. About an hour after I was there, I realised the name calling was becoming more and more infrequent to the point where at least 45 minutes had passed and no one had been summoned – and all the while the room was filling up.
By 3 p.m. it appeared that the system had been abandoned. By now I had thoroughly ran out of things with which to amuse myself. I had managed to stretch the 20-minute crossword into more than several hours, but that might have had more to do with my intellectual ability than any deliberate time-filling. I engaged in a few awkward conversations with total strangers or joined them in grumbling about how long it was taking.
I watched CNN until I almost went mad from hearing the same thing over and over. For a moment it looked as though we were saved when they switched channels, but it was only to put it on one of those insufferable soap operas where the storyline takes years to develop. Were they trying to tell us something?
Around 4 p.m. an acquaintance I knew from my court reporting days arrived and we started talking. It was then I realised a former marshal was sitting in the back and had been there from 9 a.m. He had had enough and was leaving but returned to the room a few minutes later after someone convinced him it wouldn’t be too long now. It was another 45 minutes before he got his relief.
My acquaintance and I vowed never again at Christmas, as she realised that no names were being called.
Much later, at the sound of my name, I felt like I had been in a prison and someone forgot to lock the door. I bolted. I encountered a pleasant customs officer who recognised the name from this column. Even if I wanted to, I couldn’t be upset with her. I don’t have a fan base, so if anyone pauses for a second – mistakenly or otherwise – and reads even the headline of this column, I claim them. I should be up to about five fans by now.
For all that customs officer’s charm, I was still miffed at having sat in that room sipping a soft drink and sucking on mints because there was only an utterly unhealthy snack machine on the compound. After I repacked the barrel and she wrote me up, I went to five different booths before I could be released.
The freighter asked me how long I’d been on the inside. When I told him, he asked me if things started moving in the evening and I responded “yes”. Then he told me that was when overtime kicked in, so things were dragged out during regular business hours.
That explained part of a conversation I had heard on the inside between two workers on how much overtime they were going to get and how it would compare with the last time. The freighter further explained – not at my urging – that from one week’s overtime, some workers earned almost a month’s salary.
If this is the case, then fling open the gates to the Barbados Revenue Authority and by all means introduce the 24-hour system. My fear, though, is that upon hearing 24 hours, the workers might interpret that to mean keep customers there for that period.
• Antoinette Connell is a News Editor. Email [email protected]