Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Two Tobago issues

The Sunday Express editorial of January 5 asked whether Tobago was “better off, or otherwise, for having so emphatically chosen the THA leadership path it took last January.” It went on to speak about internal self-government, tourism, “vanity projects such as the Shaw Park complex”, etc., and reached the dismal conclusion that “(one) year later, Tobago must be hard put to recognise what gains have since accrued to its best interests.” Today I want to touch on some aspects of the Tobago economy, particularly tourism. I shall come later to internal self-government.

In his 2014 New Year message Chief Secretary Orville London said this: “Gone are the days when we can be late for work without reason, or not working at optimum level, or putting off until tomorrow what could be accomplished today. Tobago’s productivity level remains a major concern, and the establishment of the Productivity Council is just one of the strategies to be introduced in 2014 to address this problem.” How exactly such a Council, perhaps of the type this country has had before, will increase productivity escapes me, but I’m willing to listen.

In what he said about present productivity levels, however, London was being restrained. Yes, there are many Tobagonians who work hard, but increasingly they are an endangered species. More and more, it is a question of money expected for bad work, little work, or no work at all.

The situation is aggravated by the THA’s dominance of the island’s employment profile. If memory serves me right, London said the other day that 60 per cent of the Tobago workforce were THA employees. How that is broken down – regular public service, contract service, CEPEP, URP, special pre-election projects, etc. – he did not say. It would be interesting to know.

Sixty per cent is frighteningly high, and many think the figure is higher. London has said the private sector must step up to the plate. To which the private sector – limited in size, with a limited market – retorts that it can do only so much, and that in any case attitudes of slackness and irresponsibility, bred by the very THA employment, have been spreading so fast that employing non-Tobagonians is a far more economic proposition. Filipinos have been in Tobago for many years now; they are being joined these days by Guyanese, Jamaicans and Chinese, all of whom, I expect, have official permission to work.

The well-known economist, Dr Vanus James, has lambasted the THA as “the number one enemy of private enterprise in Tobago.” Dismissing London’s private sector appeal, he charges that the London administration has instead increased jobs in the public sector, a recipe for low productivity. He acidly describes the “work ethic” in today’s Tobago: “You come to work late, no problem. You drag your feet, no problem. So much for discipline and production. You have a job, you keep your job. That is bad THA policy, the opposite of what is needed now.” I assume that London, who thinks these days are “gone”, has not been aware of the realities around him.

The tourism sector, Tobago’s only real earner of foreign exchange, has been hit hard not only by the attitudes just mentioned (which include poor, sometimes even hostile, service) but also by crime (a drop in the bucket, though, compared with Trinidad) and by the global economic downturn. To its credit, the central government has shown itself sensitive to the island’s tourism travails. In March last year an agreement was entered into between the state-owned T&T Tourism Business Development Company and four commercial banks for an amount of $250 million. to be made available to Tobago tourism over the period 2012 to 2015. The money, to be lent by the banks with a government guarantee and proper financial information, is for “debt restructuring or refinancing of tourism and tourism-related businesses”, and for “the upgrade and maintenance of hotels” (up to 50 rooms) “and ancillary tourism businesses.”

Nearly one year has passed since the agreement was signed. What has happened?

Well, virtually nothing, really, and hoteliers in Tobago are furious. They blame the banks. Even if the required paperwork is in order, they say, the banks still turn up their noses; they show no flexibility. They can decline an application. If they accept it and things go wrong, they can foreclose and seize the property. And in any case they have a government guarantee. It’s a win-win situation for them. So what’s the problem? the hoteliers ask.

They tell me they can’t get clear answers, but they feel the banks, sitting on rapidly and indecently growing piles of cash, are more concerned with “giving value to their shareholders” than with the development, perhaps salvation, of the Tobago tourism industry – or with development in general. Some also wonder if the banks do not repose confidence in the government’s guarantee, or indeed in the government. Yet others ask whether the guarantee plan was properly thought out and coordinated in the first place, and whether there is proper communication within banks. Questions are also raised about the obligation on Tobago bank branches to refer almost everything of importance to their Port of Spain headquarters, which appear largely ignorant or uncaring of Tobago’s burdens.

May I now call on the banks to say publicly, perhaps through the Bankers’ Association, what their difficulties are with the guarantee arrangement and what they propose as a solution? Let an open conversation begin.

For its part, the government, which has to be commended on the guarantee arrangement, must now manifest a new sensitivity to the Tobago tourism industry. The arrangement has not been working. If it is that the banks are reluctant to invest, even with a government guarantee, in the future of Tobago, Larry Howai and his colleagues must, in conjunction with others, locate and follow a different road.

I for one will be keeping an eye on things.

• Reginald Dumas is a former

ambassador and former head of the Public Service