Cannonier alarmed by retail sales figures
An increase in immigration would boost the island's struggling retail sector, the Leader of the Opposition said yesterday.
Craig Cannonier said he was alarmed by figures that showed a decline in sales for seven months in a row and insisted action had to be taken to bring in more people.
Wayne Caines, the Minister of National Security, said talks about comprehensive immigration reform would be held over the next few months, but the number of expatriate workers must be “balanced” with opportunities for Bermudians.
Figures published this week showed that for the first time in 5½ years, retail sales have fallen for more than six consecutive months year-on-year.
Mr Cannonier said: “This has got to be the most disturbing news that we've heard in some time.
“The retail sector has continued to decline. This is the seventh month, but what's different about this particular month, we're looking at September, all sectors of retail are down.
“I forewarned it before that we are chasing after the tail of a recession.”
The One Bermuda Alliance leader said businesses may need to reduce staffing levels if the trend continued.
He added: “We cannot continue on talking about fintech as a long-term goal to be a third pillar of the economy when in actual fact, here and now, we are losing companies.
“We are losing local companies, and those local companies that are still managing to stay and tread water are having to downsize.”
Mr Cannonier hoped the festive season would deliver “a bump” in retail sales and pointed out that the sector employed more Bermudians that any other outside of Government.
He said: “The single most impactful thing for our local retailers is this — boots on the ground. People.
“This island needs more people and it doesn't matter how the Government decides to spin things, they cannot avoid the fact that we need an immigration policy in place that encourages people to come to Bermuda, to reside in Bermuda so that we have more spending.”
Mr Cannonier said the Government should tell Bermudians what will be done to stimulate the economy and safeguard jobs.
Mr Caines took over the immigration brief from former minister of home affairs Walton Brown in a Cabinet reshuffle at the start of November.
He later told MPs he was “aggressively tackling” a backlog in work permits and revealed last week that the total number approved over the past three months was 2,205.
The numbers leapt from 538 in September to 836 in October and 831 in November.
Mr Cannonier said yesterday: “If you take a look at the numbers, the minister approved an incredible amount of permits within a short period of time, so the question is what was the process? Was due process followed?
“This is not to draw into question the minister, but this is just to ensure that Mr and Mrs Bermuda understand that while he's been doing the process, he gave fair and equitable opportunity to Mr and Mrs Bermuda.”
Mr Caines said yesterday: “We have been looking at comprehensive immigration reform and that includes processes and procedures within the Department of Immigration.
“The Chief Immigration Officer and her team have acquitted themselves admirably. Over the months, just through the sheer volumes, there has been an increase.”
He added the number of work permit applications was seasonal.
Mr Caines added: “We have a system in place with three additional staff members hired and an increase in the budget for overtime. We have tackled the work-permit backlog aggressively.
“This is an excellent time to look at the future with a digitisation process, and, in the not too distant future, we will be able to roll that out as a part of our immigration reform.”
Mr Caines said that checks on work permit applications were thorough.
He added: “The board that takes responsibility for looking at each and every one does so with a great deal of deliberation.
“They look at each application and it is judged on the merit.”
Mr Caines said: “I would hate to leave the misguided notion that the floodgates have been opened and we have not been correctly vetting these applications.”
He added that the Government realised the need to have expatriate workers on the island but said it had “promised to make Bermuda a place where Bermudians have opportunity”.
He said: “That has to be done in a balanced way.”