Columns

Cauterising the wound: A pressing imperative

Howard Gregory

Sunday, August 27, 2017

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There is a wound that is festering and threatening to become a sore that could overtake the body and its functioning. While the wound of which I speak is not a physical wound, it has the potential to do serious damage to the body corporate of our nation. Here I speak of the focus on the Chinese-Jamaican relationship as it is being highlighted through the activities of Chinese business interests and the apparent deterioration in the perception of some Jamaicans to the motivation and consequences for the life of the people of the nation.

It is ironic that this is mushrooming at a time when many Jamaicans are also expressing their appreciation of the work ethic, quality of work, and expeditious completion of projects undertaken by the Chinese — to the extent that it is not unusual to hear citizens criticise projects undertaken by the National Works Agency and its subcontractors, declaring that “if the Chinese were doing this work it would be completed a long time ago”.

In recent weeks, former Minister of National Security Peter Bunting made some rather caustic comments regarding the involvement of the Chinese in the sphere of business in the island as one that is likened to “economic colonialism”. Understandably, there was a quick response to his comments — many of the responses taking on the usual partisan political flavour. At the same time it has been difficult to understand the nature of the outburst and the choice of language coming from one who was a minister of government in the previous Administration, given the fact that many such projects were undertaken when he was a member of the Cabinet. Subsequently, there have been moves to soft-pedal the position articulated by Bunting, even as there have been other initiatives behind the scenes.

The major response forthcoming from the Government has been from Prime Minister Andrew Holness decrying the utterance and suggesting that we have never been a xenophobic society. To a certain extent the prime minister is correct, but his comment does not reflect all of the reality surrounding race relations as it relates to the Chinese in Jamaica. I recall the protests against Chinese businesses in the 1960s, in Kingston, which led to the migration of many Jamaican Chinese to Canada in particular. I cannot forget driving on Spanish Town Road and passing by what was then Wes Bes Supermarket and Bakery, and seeing the smouldering shell that was left as a result of violence directed against that and other Chinese-owned businesses at the time. To this day, each time I pass that junction where Waltham Park Road meets Spanish Town Road, I still look at the pitiful attempts over the years to turn that location into a viable business operation once more.

The question that must be addressed at this time is whether the comment of Peter Bunting is representative of a singular position. The facts belie such an assertion. A national group of professionals that cannot be labelled merely as a partisan, political group or a bunch of emotional lightweights have added their voice to the issue in a profound way. Accordingly, the Construction and Industry Council (CIC), the umbrella group for construction industry professional organisations, is reported in the media to have publicly called on the Holness Administration to halt what it says is an “ill-conceived” agreement with China Construction America (South America Division - CCASA) to complete concept designs for the development of government offices around National Heroes' Park. They have suggested further that the terms of engagement of the Chinese business interests by the Government of Jamaica are not the same as those by which it engages local business interests in the construction industry. The CIC's membership includes the Jamaican Institute of Architects, Jamaica Institution of Engineers, Incorporated Masterbuilders of Jamaica, Jamaica Institution of Planners, Jamaica Institute of Quantity Surveyors, and the Land Surveyors Association of Jamaica.

Now we see the trade union movement entering into the expression of concern through one of its respected leaders, the president of the Union of Clerical, Administrative and Supervisory Employees Vincent Morrison, who has characterised the conditions under which Jamaicans are working on various Chinese investment projects as a “total disgrace”. He is quoted as going on further to say, “What I am concerned about is the total disrespect that the Chinese have shown so far as it regards industrial relations.” Clearly, the matter has not been laid to rest with whatever shroud of silence to which Bunting has retreated.

Chinese presence and engagement in the business and commercial life of this nation is nothing new, as our history makes obvious. What is new, however, is the changing global reality in which China is now a major player in economic investment and development in many nations across the world, and which is now being reflected in heightened diplomatic presence, significant financial inflows with involvement in major developmental projects in the nation, and an accompanying inflow of Chinese nationals into the country. And while there is a national focus on large developmental projects, we cannot overlook the fact that there are new Chinese nationals who have invested heavily in retail and wholesale business in just about every nook and cranny in Jamaica.

The Government of Jamaica has made it plain that it is committed to the pursuit of significant economic investment and development for the nation over the next four years, which development no well-thinking Jamaican can gainsay. The issue becomes one of how that objective is achieved. The reality is that, as a nation, our old friends and former investors are dealing with some of their own national issues, and are either not interested or able to invest in Jamaica at this time. At this point, the Chinese are the most willing investors in major developmental projects, especially those requiring significant financial outlay not readily available to the Government of the day.

The issue which arises is: At what cost will the path to economic investment and development be pursued? In a sense, when economic vulnerability defines our situation, it changes the balance between negotiating partners and raises serious questions about the place of mutuality in terms of respect, as well as the extent of economic leveraging in the hands of the investor. This is not something new, as there have been allegations of unfair practices made about concessions granted to investors from overseas related to work permits granted to foreign workers for positions that could be filled by local workers. The same situation is now surfacing in relation to Chinese workers. This has certainly been true of the hospitality industry. The Ministry of Labour has generally been the target of such allegations.

The present situation is not tenable. It has the potential for serious social unrest, the undermining of strong diplomatic relationships which have been forged with the people of China over several years, and the withdrawal of needed investment for projects which facilitate our national development. Additionally, I am deeply concerned about the possible explosive response, not just from professional groups, but from labourers in the building industry who feel that they are being displaced or victimised wherever Chinese-funded projects are undertaken.

It is therefore imperative that the Government of Jamaica be seen to be more proactive in addressing the situation in public and in private through the use of all the diplomatic channels that exist; through dialogue with the professional and labour union sectors which have expressed concern regarding the current situation; and that the public be constantly informed and engaged regarding the development of projects as well as the terms and conditions of such projects.

It is also important that there be some obvious manifestation of bipartisan agreement by the Government and Opposition, as these are matters of vital national interest. If the individuals and groups which have gone public on the issue, and who represent responsible leaders in this nation, cannot be engaged in some meaningful dialogue and resolution of the issues, then I fear what may happen when disgruntled citizens at another level decide to take the situation into their own hands.

Right Reverend Howard Gregory is the Anglican Bishop of Jamaica and the Cayman Islands.

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