By Caribbean News Now contributor
PROVIDENCIALES, TCI — One hour before midnight on Friday and the start date for delivery of the biggest campaign promise by the ruling Peoples’ Democratic Movement (PDM), a release from Premier Sharlene Cartwright Robinson’s government in the Turks and Caicos Islands (TCI) cancelled the commencement date of the hotel service charge law, the party’s signature piece of legislation.
The press release came from deputy premier and minister for immigration and labour, Sean Astwood, who has ministerial responsibility for service charge oversight and management.
The service charge issue has been a hotly debated political point since the Michael Misick government introduced legislation in 2004 to create a split of 60/40 in favour of workers on a ten percent service charge to bills of guests visiting the islands. The PDM promised that, if it was elected to office, it would amend that in favour of 100 percent to workers.
In an attempt to do so, the new service charge ordinance was passed with much fanfare with only one member of parliament voting to defer its passage. Josephine Connolly said after her much criticized abstention that she would not apologize and accused the premier of preparing the bill in haste to boost the falling approval ratings of a deeply unpopular government.
“In my view this ordinance is ill-considered, fatally flawed and appears to have been prepared in haste to boost the falling ratings of a deeply unpopular government,” she said in a release after its passage.
However, Connolly came in for much criticism of the bill by workers in the hotel industry, who publicly asked on national radio programs how she could be “for the people” but abstain from voting on the people’s bill. Hotel workers have been waiting on a Christmas pay increase, which some say was promised to them from Christmas 2017.
Sources close to Connolly say the former minister of education sees Cartwright-Robinson, who has no business or real world experience and, although she has been called to the TCI bar, that she does not possess the legal savvy to bring about the legislative changes to better the lives of people of the TCI.
The source went on to say that the view of business people and investors of the current premier is not good and many have lost all hope that she can engage them in a meaningful way.
In the event, instead of fixing the situation, it appears that the premier and her government have only made matters worse. Hoteliers were up in arms over its implementation, with some claiming that it would bankrupt their businesses, while others asked for a greater consideration.
Workers on the other hand have expressed their displeasure of the delayed passage of the bill, with some claiming that the PDM made a false promise just to get elected. The pressure from the workers seemed to have caused the PDM to pass a bill to capture more for workers with almost two years into office.
One hotelier who spoke to Caribbean News Now said in meetings that they can hardly get a word in with the premier. Another said she made promises but the follow up is lacking and it’s a waste of time with this PDM government.
Before the passage of the bill, Cartwright-Robinson came in for some harsh criticism from hoteliers, with one investor openly expressing his displeasure about the investment climate and the ability to carry on business in the islands.
Before the bill made it to the House of Assembly, the owner of Ports of Call resort, formerly Comfort Suites, wrote an open letter lambasting the Cartwright-Robinson-led government for not looking out for the workers’ best interests.
“Unfortunately over the past two years we have seen a government shift in policies that are ignoring the well being of businesses on the island, especially the hotels and restaurants, which are the backbone of the island. We believe that, should the proposed amendments be passed, hotels and condo resorts will have to lay off employees, cut back the wages of others and reduce services to our guests. We also believe that the government’s efforts to protect the employment of Turks Islanders, while well meaning, are creating severe business operation issues to the point where one questions continuing doing business on the island,” Dale Papke said.
Papke did not stop at the premier but chastised deputy premier Astwood of mismanaging the immigration ministry as well:
“We are all for ensuring that employees are properly compensated but Turks and Caicos already has one of the highest minimum wage levels in the Caribbean. Combined with the tight permit controls that restrict businesses’ ability to bring employees to the island that are willing to be employed for the entry level or ‘get your hands dirty’ positions, this proposed change could be the ‘nail in the coffin’ in making Turks and Caicos undesirable as an island to operate a hotel or resort on.”
Friday’s eleventh hour press release came as a shock to workers who have been constantly told that, beginning December 1, 2018, they would start to see their service money collected.
The government has apparently found grounds to delay the implementation, the release said: “The deputy premier and minister of border control and employment services announces the delayed commencement of the Hotel and Restaurant (Service Charge) Ordinance 2018 to enable further public education and readiness for the new regime as well as to make any required legislative clarifications by way of amendments to avoid ambiguity and ensure proper understanding of and compliance with the Ordinance.”
The release did not elaborate on the type of legislative clarifications; however, some hoteliers have informed staff of various issues surrounding its start date.
The release went on to say, “In the meantime, service charge will continue to be collected as currently provided under existing law.”
Another matter that has surfaced since the passage of the bill is the discussion of conflict of interest circulating against certain members of the House of Assembly. Some claim that many parliamentarians who participated and voted on the bill were seriously conflicted. And had they not been allowed to participate there might be a totally different outcome.
Among the parliamentarians whose integrity has come into question on their contribution to the debate on the service charge bill include Cartwright-Robinson herself, who some say is conflicted since her husband works for an establishment that collects service charge and that she will personally benefit and she should have recused herself.
The leader of the opposition has also been cited as another who participated and had a conflict of interest because of his ownership in hotels and tourism related business and his wife’s extensive work with hotels.
In fact, the issue of conflict was very topical as the current minister of tourism sat out of the debate and did not participate because of his family’s ownership interest in a small hotel in North Caicos that is currently under construction. Reports are that up to seven members of the House of Assembly participated in the debate and should have abstained because of their direct or pecuniary interests.