URGENT REFORMS


Yesterday’s online edition of SN contained four separate articles about oil, the most important of which were reports of speeches by the Canadian High Commissioner and the United States Ambassador. In her farewell address, Ms. Lilian Chaterjee said that Guyana lacked the labour force needed for the ‘explosive’ oil-linked growth that is coming. The US Ambassador, Ms. Sarah-Ann Lynch, speaking at the Oil and Gas Summit, said that Guyana has to move quickly to show the world and Guyanese that it is ready for the immense transition underway. The words conveyed urgency.

Guyana is not equipped to devise and implement labour force policies for itself or the private sector that would ensure the structured importation of skilled and unskilled labour and expertise for the country’s needs. Whether or not it will seek, or develop the capacity, to do so in the near future, or at any other time, is anyone’s guess.

In the immediate future, as soon as spending increases in building and infrastructure construction, labour may drift away from rice, sugar mining and possibly other industries. These employers, who are mainly Guyanese, are ill-equipped to seek such labour overseas. What will eventually happen, unless proper systems are put in place, is that the absence of rules and structures will encourage unregulated and unlawful immigration, intense exploitation of foreign workers, robbing of the revenues such as income tax and NIS and intense social problems will multiply. It must be noted from now that local employers will need assistance in legally recruiting foreign workers. There is time to address this issue, but the window is closing rapidly. Unless urgent reforms are made now by the Government, it will not be able to avoid the social problems described above in the future.

Perhaps because of its sensitivity, the distinguished diplomats did not mention corruption of which they could not be unaware. Only yesterday it was reported that the Minister of Agriculture referred two NDIA contracts to the Auditor General for investigation due to variations involving tens of millions of dollars. This is everyday news. But not a single word had been heard from any senior government official about plans to deal with corruption. What we do hear about is the actual discovery of corruption. If there is or has been so much corruption, isn’t it clear that there are dilapidated or non-existent systems to prevent corruption? Why are we hearing of no steps to prevent the same thing under this government? Are we to rely only on the pristine purity of current appointees – politicians or politically appointed bureaucrats – or those yet to be appointed? Or do we rely on enforceable systems, one being a code of conduct for ministers.

Corruption in customs, also currently in the news, started seriously in the 1970s with the imposition of the licensing system for importation, gaining steam over the years. At the lowest levels, recipients of modest gifts from relatives overseas are exploited by keeping them all day to clear a package or barrel. At the highest levels, customs is in the grip, not only of big importers, but of oil smugglers and drug dealers. We are now learning the extent of it with the deletion of 1,000 or more images of containers. Millions of dollars in bribes per shipment must be involved. With 1,000 containers deleted, just imagine!

About two years ago, I represented a ship that came in to Port Georgetown with a load of fuel, the sale which had fallen through just before the ship arrived. The fuel was declared to be ‘intransit’ because the ship merely came in for supplies to make its return journey. Not knowing that it would be unlawful, the ship accepted an offer for a sale of a small quantity of fuel which was done to the knowledge of customs and on which duty was paid. With this success, the ship tried to sell some more. Because the ship sold fuel, then tried to sell some more, rather than having to return with it across the ocean, and seek an uncertain sale somewhere else, customs charged the ship for a false declaration that the fuel was ‘intransit.’ The ship did not rob customs and the evidence that it sold fuel openly and paid duty, showed that it did not intend to do so. It proved its contract to sell the fuel and the violation by the purchaser. It was nevertheless fined US$50,000.

I advised that the fine be legally challenged. The ship paid rather than contested because, being in a foreign land, it felt fearful that worse could happen if it challenged the authorities. I sympathized with that position. Shortly after, the M.V. Juliet was discovered with a shipload of undeclared fuel anchored in the Demerara River. The undeclared, illegal, fuel was not seized. Neither was the ship. No fine was reported to be imposed. No human ingenuity can resolve the half a century old issue of corruption at customs, or at the numerous government departments where it exists, or in the society, without dramatic and urgent reforms.

Having regard to the experiences of other developing, oil producing, countries, no other issue is as important or urgent.

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