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by Ryan Walters
Two recent developments caught my attention, and as a promoter and defender of entrepreneurship, and small and micro businesses, I feel compelled to weigh in.
First, participants on a popular radio show consistently called to highlight that clients of the Government’s Trust Loan Fund were now being called on by debt collectors to repay sums lost over the COVID-19 period.
I recall hearing a message read on the said programme, which sounded like a recipient explaining the challenges faced through the height of COVID-19.
Let me say this, I believe that clients of the Trust Loan Fund who lost their businesses or were negatively affected financially during COVID-19 and now are unable to repay, should have by now, gotten that debt written off and a new loan issued.
This would enable aspiring entrepreneurs a real opportunity to be successful in their business ventures, given what economies worldwide had gone through in recent years, especially between 2019 and 2021.
Frankly, I am shocked to hear that this is an issue in January 2023. Since coming to office in 2018, the Government has given big businesses significant tax breaks and incentives.
The Government removed the National Social Responsibility Levy (NSRL) and yet consumers did not see [price] reductions on the shelves.
The Government wrote off $1B of Value Added Tax (VAT) that was collected from the hard-working taxpayers of this country but was not paid to the Barbados Revenue Authority by corporations, an act that is perceived to be unlawful.
The government reduced corporation tax by around 20 per cent and consumers continued to be burdened with high prices.
And to top it all off, during the height of COVID-19, the Government allocated $300 million to large hoteliers without delay and at that time, without fixed repayment terms.
But now, today, here we are, with a group of enterprising young men and women who were granted the opportunity to start a business of their dream with a Trust Loan and who, unfortunately, but like everyone else, were financially affected by the lockdowns and curfews and whose businesses are so small that they had to close.
The understanding is that these persons are now being run down by the Government or agents of the government for sums that individually may not even amount to the payroll taxes deducted from one executive of the large hotels who were bailed out.
And the total sum, which collectively in a worst-case scenario, would probably not exceed five per cent of the sum of $300 million paid to large businesses to keep them open.
Given the full context of the relief and support that the Government gave to large businesses, it is a no-brainer to write off this small debt from the Trust Loan so that our young people can breathe.
The Government can afford to write off what may not exceed $10 million, rather than pressuring the already struggling group of micro-business owners. We all know substantially why their businesses failed, because of COVID-19.
The Government doesn’t have to look far for the money as they can dip into the latest loan drawdown of $200M taken on behalf of the people of Barbados and taken without discussion or our permission.
The second development is a story which was featured prominently in a local newspaper. I quote an extract: “We are 26 black investors who pooled our resources to make this a reality, but we are all now suffering. We have an asphalt plant which is going to grass and all the requisite equipment– graders, pavers, loaders, etcetera–but we have yet to get a single Government contract.”
I am on record repeating that small business is everyone’s business, and it goes beyond the political divide. It hurts me when I see that smaller businesses in Barbados are not getting the breaks and opportunities to stabilise and grow.
Construction is a key contributor to the gross domestic product and since this is so, it means that most of the economic pie goes to larger businesses if the Government continues to block or overlook smaller players who have the capacity to get the work done.
It is worse when a group of small men can come together to pool their resources, something that we, as a society, are accused of not doing enough of, but to see this effort being made and yet to no avail, has to be discouraging not only to this group of 26 but to others who are thinking about forming alliances to strengthen their chances for opportunities and enfranchisement.
I read the Minister’s response intently, but for me, it is not so much about why the group cannot be awarded at least one major project or part thereof, but more about what the Government is doing to ensure that more smaller players are able to participate in the development of this country going forward.
By the way, we now have two Senior Ministers of Government seemingly butting their heads, one with responsibility over Infrastructural Projects and the other with responsibility over Transport, Works and Water Resources.
Between these two, they should decide who will come to the public and share a current list of road works being completed or in the pipeline, how each project is being financed and who the contractor for each project is.
Let the public judge if the treatment being meted out to this group and smaller players is justified.
For too long, small business owners are just “a cry in the wilderness”. How much longer must this go on?
Ryan Walters is a Vice President and former candidate of the Democratic Labour Party.