MP calls for corruption probe into farm work programmeThursday, May 06, 2021
BY ALPHEA SAUNDERS
MEMBER of Parliament (MP) for Clarendon northern and member of Parliament's Public Accounts Committee (PAC) Dwight Sibbles has called for urgent attention to be given to allegations of corruption and fraud in the farm work programme, which could cause eligible applicants to be disenfranchised.
Questioning Permanent Secretary Colete Roberts Risden and her team at Tuesday's meeting of the committee, Sibbles said “the 800-pound gorilla” affecting the programme needs to be confronted through an audit.
“It seems to us like it's almost like a hustle being conducted in the Ministry of Labour with regards to the farm work programme, and we are asking you to have an investigation,” he said, pointing out that no matter how long the “thing” has gone on auditors can find out what happened.
MPs pointed to recent incidents of constituents approaching them in regards to the farm work programme, seemingly hoping to be selected through less than above board means.
St Andrew East Rural MP Juliet Holness said as recently as a month ago she turned back a constituent who sought to have her write letters on their behalf to get on the programme.
“I've said to them I will not be able to do a letter for you because there is a designated number on the cards that I get [from the ministry], and I can only respond to the ministry in relation to those,” said Holness. “...It would appear that there are persons who are able to give farm work tickets outside of the system of distributing through Members of Parliament and the counsellors,” she added. Holness said, prior to this, she had received a “strange call” while the former minister, the late Shahine Robinson was in office, where the caller apparently mistook her for someone else. “Somebody was telling me that they had my farm work tickets ready and I made sure to continue the conversation until they realised I was the wrong person,” the MP said. She said the incident was reported, but, “I got nothing from it”.She argued that it was evident that over the years people, such as the individual who called, had been able to get through the system comfortably and ahead of those who have undertaken the legitimate process.At the same time, Sibbles said there have been reports of blatant nepotism in his constituency, where a liaison officer of the ministry was offering assistance to numerous family members in the farm work programme. The MP said that he would provide details to the ministry's internal auditors.Westmoreland Western MP Moreland Wilson, meanwhile, told the committee that there was a farm work programme being run parallel to the ministry's official programme. “Just two weeks ago I was told that persons were going around collecting names for farm work; as the MP I was a bit shocked [as] I have persons who are saying there is a programme where you don't have to go to the MP's office.”
The ministry's permanent secretary said she was not aware that any forms were being issued illicitly, as every application form is recorded within the system. She also pointed out that reports of illegal activities linked to the programme have, in the past, been probed by the police and charges laid. “In most instances persons pay money, allegedly, to someone employed to the ministry to be placed on the programme and the persons end up getting the run around, and when they're not moving along in the process, they get frustrated, information will come to us, and when we check, we realise we don't have them anywhere in our system,” she explained.
Permanent Secretary Risden said the solution to persons trying to jump the line is to secure more jobs under the programme. However, she noted that competition from Mexico, particularly for the US market, remains stiff due to the cheaper costs associated with that group of workers. She said the US programme has not seen any significant growth as a result, but there had not been a dip in the Canadian programme, save for a minimal and expected reduction due to COVID-19 restrictions. Jamaica has the largest share of the US and Canadian farm work in the Caribbean. The ministry said that out of more than 5000 applications, over 700 people were approved for farm work programmes last year.
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