As we continue trying to give true meaning to CARICOM and to plant firmly the ideal of a CARICOM Single Market and Economy (CSME) into the psyche of Caribbean people, some interesting rumblings have emanated from the Bahamas. But that nation is not the first from which such noise has come.
The positives of regional unity should be an easy sale to our people. But it is not. The benefits of viewing the Caribbean as one economic space should be obvious to most. But it is not. The inanity of small, independently dependent nations trying to make their way alone should be a no-brainer. But it is not. It can be argued that one of the failures of CARICOM and CSME is that neither has been convincingly sold to common or average folk in the region. Our politicians and persons of letters often speak of these ideals and arrangements in the halls of power or academia. But have they sought to address them within the context of the insularity that exists among those millions of folk across the region who can truly give substance to our regional template?
The newly installed prime minister of the Bahamas, Dr Hubert Minnis, this week reportedly gave a directive that Bahamians must fill “all available posts” before any consideration was given to foreigners. The Bahamian minister of labour Dion Foulkes made it abundantly clear that Mr Minnis had given him directions to ensure that “no foreigner gets a permit where there is a Bahamian available to do the job”.
“Wherever there is a Bahamian who is qualified to do the job and a foreigner or an expat is applying for that position, we will refuse the application,” Mr Foulkes stated.
The politician referenced a specific case where a work permit request from a hotel was turned down because there were unemployed Bahamians qualified to fill the post.
The minister had this to say: “We had an application from a major hotel for a food and beverage director. I declined it, because there are Bahamians who are trained in food and beverage in this country who are unemployed and we know who they are and we are sending some of them to that hotel to be interviewed.”
The minister of labour went even further. He indicated that where special skills were required and a non-Bahamian was hired, the employer had subsequently to identify a skilled Bahamian to train for the particular post to eventually replace the foreign worker.
Though the Bahamas is a full member of CARICOM, it is not a signatory to the CSME. The Bahamian government used the word “foreigners” in broad terms to suggest non-Bahamians. The government did not indicate that CARICOM nationals not born in the Bahamas were exempted from the classification of “foreigners”.
One can appreciate politicians seeking to give the electorate that installed them the assurance that home drums will beat first. It is a tightrope they often walk and a sensitive course of governance trying to balance regionalism and what in essence is parochialism. Chapter III of the Revised Treaty of Chaguaramas makes provisions for the free movement of skilled CARICOM nationals as well as for the free movement of persons to establish businesses and provide services. But politicians instinctively have votes and power in their focus when having that final say or making that relevant decision on which drumbeat to listen to.
What can prove most distressing, though, is when the message sent by politicians to the average citizen is that “Caribbean foreigners” are the cause of their own unemployment or are poaching jobs that nationals can do themselves. If CARICOM or the CSME is to mean anything or is to be taken to a best-case scenario, the region’s political leaders must take their people in the direction that there is no such thing as a “Caribbean foreigner”. The people of the islands must be pointed towards a path where Bridgetown, Georgetown, Port of Spain, Kingston, Kingstown, et al, are all virtually interchangeable entities, even though divided by the expanse of the deep blue sea. But, regrettably, that notion is a palpable pipe dream.
If prime minister Minnis’ edict were adopted to the letter across the region, the displacement and disillusionment of “Caribbean foreigners” would be unimaginable. But the words in the ears of potentially xenophobic Bahamian listeners are just as potentially psychologically damaging to regionalism as our own infamous “ever so welcome, wait for a call” once uttered by a late Barbadian leader.