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Controversy erupts in Turks and Caicos over secret development agreement

The article reported that the Beaches personnel department is recruiting a minimum of 100 additional Jamaican nationals, who the article claimed will be transferred to the TCI to join the existing Beaches staff here, which already consists of a majority of Jamaican nationals on work permits. 

Beaches human resources director Monique McClean-Vaughn told the Jamaica Observer that there are also plans for a further 50 Jamaican workers to be added in the near future and, when the additional 50 are recruited, it will bring the number of Jamaicans working at Beaches Turks and Caicos Resorts to 503.

McClean-Vaughn said a team of eight recruiters from the TCI will arrive in Jamaica on April 29 to begin four days of interviews, which they hope will culminate in the first batch of 100 workers arriving in the TCI within the next six to eight weeks.

According to the Observer, the Jamaicans will fill vacancies as room technicians in the engineering department; kitchen line cooks; concierge agent; butlers; security officers; bartenders in the pool and beach areas; waiters and waitresses in the buffet and a-la-carte restaurants; room attendants and housemen

The Observer article prompted an immediate and vigorous reaction in the TCI, where local unemployment has become a serious concern, exacerbated by recent voluntary redundancies of hundreds of civil servants as part of a “right-sizing” of the public service by the interim administration.

At the same time, the disclosure of a hitherto unknown “development agreement” signed in 2006 between the TCI government and the Sandals Group has added fuel to the flames because it purports to exempt Sandals/Beaches from certain provisions of the Immigration Ordinance regarding the grant of work permits for foreign workers.

Specifically, clause 4(2) of the 16-page agreement signed by former Governor Richard Tauwhare “acting in the name of and on behalf of the government of the Turks and Caicos Islands” creates a special “Work Permit and Employment Procedure” in relation to the grant, renewal and processing of work permits for non-belonger employees to be employed by the developers.

However, the agreement goes on to provide that “Senior Management Staff” shall not be required to adhere to certain aspects of the so-called work permit and employment procedure in relation to the grant, renewal and processing of work permits for non-Belonger employees. “Senior Management Staff” is defined in the agreement as staff holding the position of general manager, hotel manager, financial controller, executive chef, executive housekeeper, food and beverage manager, chief engineer, director of operations, water sports manager, and rooms division manager.

The agreement states that the developers shall not be required to advertise the positions for senior management staff, but merely notify the Immigration Board of any such appointment and supply relevant information and documents, whereupon such senior management staff shall be automatically authorized to enter and take up employment in the Turks and Caicos Islands. 

In relation to non senior management staff, the developers are required periodically to submit to the Immigration Board a list of names, positions, police records and relevant extracts from passports for all new workers and, prior to the submission of the list, advertise all such positions locally, except for the positions for senior management staff. Again, on submission of such list, the new employees shall be automatically authorized to enter and take up employment in the Turks and Caicos Islands.

In a press statement on Friday, the Ministry of Border Control and Labour expressed “surprise” at the Observer article.

“If true, this would not be in line with recent discussions between the ministry and Beaches Resort, as Beaches Resort has never indicated that there is such a major staff shortage which cannot be met from within the Turks and Caicos Islands,” the statement said.

The ministry said that, for the last year, it has been working closely with Beaches regarding their hiring policies and that Beaches management has agreed to abide by the procedures approved by the Labour Commissioner, and in line with the Immigration Ordinance — seeking persons from the unemployment register in the Labour Department, followed by local advertising and then as a final option seeking persons through overseas advertising.

According to the statement, Beaches management has also, along with the Turks and Caicos Hotel and Tourism Association, been working with the ministry to identify jobs for people affected by the government’s voluntary severance programme, in a process that is still going on. 

“The Ministry is seeking urgent communication from Beaches Resort management to confirm that the agreed procedures continue to be followed. The law remains that priority in employment should be given to Turks and Caicos Islanders. The Ministry has never been averse to the employment of foreign nationals to meet essential business needs, in the interests of the Turks and Caicos Islands, however, that process must be in line with the law of the land, and the systems currently in practice,” the statement concluded.

The government press office has not so far responded to an enquiry as to what extent, if at all, was it in fact permissible for the government of the day to waive any relevant provisions of the Immigration Ordinance with regard to the special treatment afforded Beaches in relation to overseas workers.

In the meantime, ‘Butch’ Stewart, owner of the Sandals Group and the Jamaica Observer, has issued a statement pointing out that Beaches is the largest private employer in the TCI, both of Turks and Caicos Islanders and as a whole, with over 1,200 employees. 

“We are also the largest generator of foreign currency in the country, which is fundamental to any economy and the most proactive in terms of marketing the Turks and Caicos as a destination,” Stewart said.

“Prior to recruiting from overseas, we take a huge number of steps to try and fill the positions locally and when all available avenues are exhausted we have to fill the positions using suitable personnel from elsewhere,” he said.

However, in what some here are regarding as a thinly-veiled threat, Stewart went on to refer to a possible closure of Beaches in the Turks and Caicos, which would create a domino effect that would impact a huge amount of people within the TCI.

“The employment for taxi drivers, tour operators and local contractors not to mention the taxes and duties we provide to the country’s coffers would all drop significantly. Make no mistake about it; an underperforming Beaches Turks and Caicos would have a hugely negative impact on the entire country. Furthermore, less demand at Beaches Turks and Caicos would result in reduced airlift. Airlines currently anchor their schedule to Beaches Turks and Caicos and should that change, it would create a situation that would affect every resort in the country and with it, their staff,” he said.

In a separate attachment, Stewart said that the resort is currently understaffed by over 13 percent and has been for over a year, and “desperately needs to close the gap between the current and the actual workforce required.”

He continued that the labour shortage at Beaches simply cannot be eliminated utilizing the employment pool in the Turks and Caicos Islands alone and the need to recruit from overseas is out of necessity.

“In accordance with the Ministry of Labour’s immigration ordinance, we look to recruit from the unemployment register from the Labour Department as the first option. Last year we scheduled a total of 554 interviews from the unemployment register recruiting 154 persons (46%) from those interviewed. In 40% of scheduled interviews, the interviewee failed to attend,” the statement said.

Local commentary on the previously unknown development agreement has been flying thick and fast, including one local attorney who described the document as a “mess”, expressing surprise that it came from the well known law firm of Misick and Stanbrook.

Two announced candidates for the leadership of the Progressive National Party (PNP), during whose administration the development agreement was negotiated and signed, have also expressed their views on the matter.

Carlos Simons QC has condemned the statements by Beaches and called the actions or lack thereof of the interim government “scandalous”. 

Another leadership candidate, Dr Rufus Ewing, has also joined the ranks of those condemning the possible large scale hiring of foreign workers.

Dwayne Taylor, treasurer of the Peoples Democratic Movement (PDM), appeared on local television on Friday to say he was not aware of what the agreement between the former (PNP-led) government and Beaches required but he suspects the issue is not settled.

He went on to say, “I have had some serious concerns with Beaches Turks and Caicos because there are a number of TC Islanders who have experience in the hospitality industry and have one or two degrees who were not given fair assessment during the Beaches job fairs.”

Leader of the PDM, Derek Taylor, has apparently yet to take a position on the Beaches hiring practice. His now national chairman was the recipient of a lucrative long term Beaches watersports contract, which lasted throughout the Taylor administration.

In November 2011, the Tribune newspaper in The Bahamas revealed the existence of an investigation conducted by US government officials into the wire transfer of funds totaling some $1.65 million from accounts belonging to Sandals/Beaches resorts into the hands of the PNP in the TCI and former premier Michael Misick, using his brothers’ firms.

According to the article, the funds after arriving in the TCI were divided between the law firms of Misick and Stanbrook, headed by Ariel Misick, and Chalmers and Company, headed by Chalmers “Chal” Misick; and Prestigious Properties headed by Washington Misick. 

One million dollars of the funds from Sandals was reportedly used to pay debts and obligations of Michael Misick himself. 

The investigation uncovered what appeared to be a front for a portion of the transfers on the basis that Prestigious Properties was purchasing TCI properties on behalf of Beaches. However, the accounts of Prestigious have revealed “handwritten notes” directing the funds to settle the personal obligations of Michael Misick.

According to the article, the $500,000 contribution to the PNP was disguised as legal fees for Stewart. However, Chalmers Misick is alleged to have accepted it as a donation to the PNP.

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