Over 50 local truckers and other construction industry workers were front and center at a Feb. 8 press conference held at the FND Conference Room. The National Association of Heavy Equipment Operators (NAHEO) organized the event. At issue was the awarding of substantial contracts to foreign companies for construction projects that local firms say that are more than capable of handling. A NAHEO statement released prior to the event expressed “deep concern with regard to work in the Heavy Equipment, Trucking and Construction sectors being awarded to non-local firms, and the consequent substantial loss to locals in terms of economic and social development and stability.” In addressing any concerns about local operators’ competence, the statement declared: “It is not because we are incapable, because there is absolutely no job or project involving Heavy Equipment that has been undertaken in this Federation over the past five years or more that has been beyond our capabilities. Yet during that period, hundreds of millions of dollars in work have been contracted out to foreign operators.” NAHEO representative Sandra Tweed said that the lack of work was hurting Federation firms. “Many local entrepreneurs are struggling,” she said. “Some of them have taken out large loans to purchase expensive equipment like backhoes.” “Although we have the work force here,” she continued, “we are not participating in the [contract awarding] process. … If a new approach is not adopted By our Government immediately taken, we and other local entrepreneurs will collapse and the economic and social consequences will be dire.” On the other hand, the rewards for ensuring that the local industry received its fair share of the awarded contracts would be manifold, according to Tweed. “Most or all of the money would stay in the country,” she said, “and it would help provide jobs for local young people and help the economy.” As indicated in the released statement, NAHEO members own and operate equipment and other assets valued at over EC$120million, representing a significant investment in the St. Kitts and Nevis economy. Making the situation even more egregious in the eyes of NAHEO and its members, “When it is time to clean up and help out the country after a disaster, it is we who step up to the plate and offer free services.” The association also has a problem with continued competition from non-local firms that have been awarded contracts in the past. “These firms come here under specific contracts and then try to embed themselves in toe-to-toe, day-to-day competition with us and other local businesses,” said the NAHEO statement. The association has turned to the St. Kitts Investment Promotion Agency (SKIPA) to promote legislation that would mandate the employment of at least 85 percent local workers in any Federation construction project. The NAHEO sees very little hope in waiting for help to arrive from regional agencies tasked with regulating commerce. “We are not assuaged By any talk of the CARICOM Single Market and Economy (CSME) or anything else,” read their statement, “because we know, as does everybody else, that no contractor or other operator in St. Kitts & Nevis would ever be allowed to undertake a contract in Trinidad, Barbados, Jamaica or any other Caribbean territory, CSME or no CSME, and Caribbean Development Bank (CDB) or no CDB.” Citing a specific example that encapsulated the problem, NAHEO called attention to a Trinidadian firm that has been granted a contract via the CDB to construct the Sea Defence Wall at Halfway Tree and Sandy Point at a sum over EC$7million, almost $.5 million more than the figure tendered By a fully qualified local contractor. To add insult to injury, the firm from Trinidad is seeking to import boulders for the project from Dominica, rather than from local sources, significantly increasing the cost of the project. “It seems to be typical of CDB arranged contracts which seem to satisfy needs that are not necessary or relevant to, or in the best interests of, the borrowing nation’s people,” asserted the NAHEO statement. “This is disrespectful and damaging to us and to our nation, and we are not prepared to put up with it or anything like it any more. We respectfully wish to make it clear that we will do all that we can and must do to demonstrate our determination to take all necessary and appropriate measures to protect, preserve and enhance our investments in this, the land of our citizenship, and to protect and preserve the honour of our nation and its people.” The Caribbean Development Bank was contacted via e-mail By The Observer to comment on the allegations made in this article, but no response has been received By press time.
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