Thu | Dec 5, 2019

Imani Duncan-Price | Do the right thing!

Published:Sunday | November 10, 2019 | 12:35 AM
Imani Duncan-Price

When people say one thing and then do something entirely different, they lose credibility. Same goes for government. In this case, people lose trust and this results in cynicism and resignation.

The recent case at the Factories Corporation of Jamaica (FCJ) location in White Marl, St Catherine, is the latest example. However, in this case, it’s not too late to do the right thing.

The mandate of the FCJ is to enhance national development by the leasing, management and development of industrial and commercial properties islandwide. Specifically, the White Marl Small Industrial Complex was opened in 1975 with a mandate to nurture the small manufacturing sector, providing warehousing space that is strategically situated near Spanish Town, a commercial district, and close to the ports.

THE SITUATION

Up until 2018, the White Marl Small Industrial Complex housed five companies. Between these companies, they lease 11 of the 12 warehouses on the property – some for the last 17 to 44 years. Collectively, they employ approximately 100 workers.

These entrepreneurs stayed, grew, and withstood, even in times of violence in nearby communities. They have grit and tenacity – more of what we need for sustained growth in Jamaica.

In fact, Sammy’s Shoe Store, Integrated Chemical Services, My Foam Company, J3R Manufacturing, and Superchard and Sons Furnishing Limited are success stories that you don’t often hear about when it comes to effective ways Government supports SME growth.

STRANGE CHAIN OF EVENTS

In early 2018, Lasco Group leased the one remaining warehouse in the White Marl Small Industrial Complex. Is this fitting with the mandate of the complex’s focus on small business?

On August 27, 2018, companies at the complex were notified by FCJ that they were seeking to divest the property.

On March 28, 2019, the companies received a letter from FCJ stating that FCJ had received an offer from one of the existing tenants. It wasn’t from one of the original five companies.

On May 30, 2019, given the concerns for the potential destabilisation and millions of dollars of losses, Mr Richard Samiel of Sammy’s Shoes made a purchase bid to FCJ. This was to secure the tenure of all five original entities. To date, there has been no response from FCJ to Mr Samiel’s offer. Is it not a citizen’s right to expect the courtesy of a response from a Government that represents them?

On November 4, 2019, the concerned five original business owners released the information on the non-participatory and opaque divestment process to the media and public.

On November 6, 2019, the tenants received a letter from FCJ that the divestment is still at the approval stage and no decision has yet been made.

TRANSPARENCY BUILDS TRUST

Government property is the property of the people of Jamaica, not the Cabinet or the board of the agency overseeing the asset. As such, transparency and fairness in all divestment processes of national assets is critical. The process must sufficiently address the why, the how, and the who, in a timely manner.

The ‘WHY’ here is questionable.

On May 14, 2018, the Government mandated that the FCJ divest 15 per cent of its non-performing assets to supplement the Government’s debt-reduction strategy. This is a good thing. But how does a complex, where tenants are in good standing and pay rent in a timely way, fall into the non-performing asset category?

The ‘HOW’ has, at the very least, been curious, especially with the clear acknowledgement of the offer from Lasco and the non-response to Mr Samiel’s offer. The suspicions of the original five tenants were further exacerbated by the fact that the warehouse rented by Lasco has never been in operation, not since they entered a lease in 2018.

The ‘WHO’ feels like the ‘system’ running over the small man yet again.

Lasco Group is one of Jamaica’s largest and most successful manufacturing and distribution companies in Jamaica. Certainly, Jamaica needs more of such business successes. However, can they be offered an alternative location among FCJ’s other assets slated for divestment?

A REPEAT OF BERNARD LODGE?

The situation in White Marl is similar to what happened with the farmers at Bernard Lodge. Many of those farmers had leases for 20 years and were working productive farms that helped reduce Jamaica’s huge food import bill.

They were told the land was being divested and they had to clear out. When some farmers asked why they were not given first option to buy the land, the chair of the company leading the divestment said that the “farmers could not afford such a venture”.

Again, the divestment process here was opaque, non-participatory and runs counter to enabling inclusive growth by not supporting SME farmers.

CORRECTIVE ACTION

The Government has the opportunity to put a halt to the current divestment process and open it up to scrutiny. Let the country see the cost-benefit analysis of the various bids so the choice of bidder is understood and accepted as fair.

Otherwise, the much-touted government support for SME growth will just seem hypocritical.

Let the recent Transparency International ‘The Global Corruption Barometer’ be the Government’s guide for right action. Otherwise, the survey results stating, “67 per cent of Jamaicans believe that Government is run by a few big interests looking out for themselves” will just get worse.

This is an opportunity to do better!

Imani Duncan-Price is the People’s National Party Spokesperson on Industry, Competitiveness and Global Logistics, a World Economic Forum Young Global Leader, Eisenhower Fellow and former Senator. Email feedback to fullticipation@gmail.com and columns@gleanerjm.com.