‘Who was building Jamaica before the Chinese came?’
PRESIDENT of the Incorporated Masterbuilders Association of Jamaica (IMAJ) Lenworth Kelly does not believe the Government is treating local contractors fairly, even as he is concerned about a perception of preference for Chinese construction companies for major projects.
“Who was building Jamaica before the Chinese came? When I ask the question I am usually met with silence… All of a sudden nothing local is good. I mean, it just doesn’t make any rational sense,” Kelly told the Jamaica Observer last week.
His comments follow remarks made by chief executive officer of the National Works Agency (NWA) EG Hunter who suggested that China Harbour could build a bridge that was put to tender and hasn’t received any bidding from local contractors, if the procurement rules allow for it.
“We tendered a bridge on two occasions in the last six months. There were no responses. In fact, if you scrutinise the website of the Public Procurement Commission there are no grade one bridge contractors so we had to expand the category to include civil engineering…and we still did not get any response from the marketplace,” he said.
“The issues which mitigate against efficient implementation are not only the government procedure, it is the inability of the marketplace to be able to respond to the different requests that we have… China Harbour can probably do it, but they are not registered as a local company so we are prohibited from using them in that regard,” he added.
Hunter further pointed out that the Government’s procurement system is designed as an anti-corruption system and not as a pro-economic system, notwithstanding the fact that 30 to 35 per cent of gross domestic product has to do with procurement.
“The entire procurement apparatus needs to be looked at in a holistic way — dispassionately — not in a defensive or aggressive way but to step back and to say, ‘What is it we’re trying to achieve? Is this the best way?’ ” he said.
However, Kelly said the onerous procurement process alone cannot effectively mitigate corruption.
“Maybe because we are in Jamaica we say the rules are there to eliminate corruption [but] I don’t know of that changing the meter any at all,” he said.
“Those who want to be corrupt will be corrupt, irrespective of what is put there. I think the idea of public procurement should be efficiency and value for money. The way it is practised in Jamaica — largely by the public sector — it is to the letter, and so often it is kind of inimical to get value for money because you may have a scenario where somebody is disqualified because of a document that wasn’t submitted, but the agency could have independently got it,” added Kelly.
He said the onerous procurement process slows the progress of projects.
“Government has to look at the mechanisms for how you get projects out: So there is the internal mechanism before it comes to bid, so you spend an inordinate amount of time going through government processes [and] a lot of the time those processes are much longer than the contract period which you want to have, which just doesn’t make any sense. It can be extremely inefficient,” said Kelly.
“There has to be further discussion. It is a system; we must continue to improve it, we must continue to tweak it, and there must be engagement with the stakeholders — supplier and contractors.
“A lot of the times we don’t get value for money because the whole length of processes that are involved before you actually reach to the procurement, and then before you get to contract, it is time consuming. And once it’s time, it’s cost — and it is costing somebody,” added Kelly.
When asked if local contractors are affected by the perception and remarks made in comparison to China Harbour Engineering Company (CHEC), Kelly said there isn’t a “level playing field”.
“Yes… because it is out there. We have done a lot to point out to our governors what we see as the issues,” he said.
“You can’t compare CHEC with anybody in Jamaica. CHEC’s organisation that they are a part of, the revenue of that construction entity is multiple times the Government of Jamaica’s budget. They are in the top 10 [largest construction companies] worldwide. They can get anything done superfast. They don’t have any resource issues. We are not talking about apples with apples here,” added Kelly.
He is calling on the Government to give more support to local contractors.
“CHEC comes in on a duty-free regime. We are asking: For the local contractors, give us the same concessions. [This is not forthcoming] But then you expect us to perform under CHEC while we pay duties and taxes,” argued Kelly.
“For us, we have to finance at local interest rates and then we have to wait on the Government to pay us. We don’t have the resources like these other guys. They [CHEC] can come in and pretty much finish the job without collecting a cent,” added Kelly.
He said local contractors can learn from the Chinese, however, but this shouldn’t be to their detriment.
“We have observed particular systems that they use [so] you take the best from them; you learn and use that too. Remember, we are smaller. The whole idea for us is: How do you preserve your local industry? Or do you allow it to be wiped out?” he asked.
“The Government of China is looking out for the Chinese. Who is our Government looking out for?” asked Kelly.