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Money drain

By COREY CONNELLY Sunday, January 12 2014

click on pic to zoom in
President of the Tunapuna Chamber of Commerce Tarran Singh....
President of the Tunapuna Chamber of Commerce Tarran Singh....

Business leaders are calling on the Ministry of National Security and the Immigration Division to explain what they believe to be an inordinate number of Chinese and Lebanese establishments that have sprung up in the country within the past few years.

Warning that such activity, if left unchecked, could further impede the country’s already troubled economy, the businessmen are questioning the legality of the operations as it relates to immigration and work permit considerations and the extent to which the establishments are employing locals.

Sunday Newsday last week spoke to several businessmen about the situation, all of whom said they have been monitoring the development over the years.

President of the Tunapuna Chamber of Commerce, Tarran Singh, said the association was “very concerned” about the trend.

“They (Chinese and Lebanese) are literally setting up businesses in every district in the country,” Singh told Sunday Newsday during an interview on Thursday.

He also wondered if the economy could sustain the number of Chinese and Lebanese establishments that have set up shop within recent years.

Singh claimed that along the East-West Corridor alone, between St Augustine and El Dorado, there were between 15 to 20 Chinese businesses in existence.

“Can the market support that?” he asked.

Saying that the Chamber was all for business activity, Singh made it clear that the operations must be legitimate and in keeping with immigration standards. He also expressed concerns about the health and safety standards, if any, that are in effect at these establishments and whether locals were being employed.

“From what I have seen, there are only foreigners in these places,” Singh said, describing the gyro sellers, many of whom are of Lebanese origin, as “pavement vendors.” “I mean, what standards do they really have?” he asked.

Singh claimed that less that five percent of persons employed in these Chinese-run businesses were locals. “That is unacceptable,” he stressed.

Singh also wondered whether the employers were paying NIS, PAYE, health surcharge and filing income tax returns.

Last week, Sunday Newsday found that several Chinese establishments in east Trinidad, on the surface, appeared to be legitimate. However, all of the alleged owners, some of whom spoke little or no English, were reluctant to talk about their businesses. “We just working, making a living,” one Chinese worker said at a restaurant in Arima on Monday.

Sources claimed, though, that the upsurge in Chinese-run businesses, which are largely, restaurants, supermarkets and convenience stores, are part of an elaborate network, reportedly orchestrated by a well-known establishment.

One source told Sunday Newsday that a Central-based Chinese entrepreneur, who has been selling food in the country for the past 15 years, recalled that he was approached by the businessman for a favour some months ago.

“He (businessman) asked me to marry his sister so that she could have gotten resident status and he offered to pay me $20,000,” the source said, adding that he had turned down the offer.

The source said the businessman, who also manages a $10 store, also takes his three children to China (all of whom were born in Trinidad) during specific times of the year.

“They go there to learn to speak and write Chinese. It is their way of staying in touch with their culture,” the source said, adding that Chinese immigrants are also encouraged to have their children in this country as a means of acquiring resident status.

“Look at central (Trinidad). Almost every street corner has a Chinese shop and restaurant,” he said.

So intricate is the network of Chinese-run establishments, the source said, immigrants are often employed from within the fraternity whenever openings arise for cooks, labourers and other jobs.

“They are really close-knit,” he said. The businessmen, the source revealed, often import their preservatives and other commodities from China.

“They buy in bulk for their restaurants and when the money is made, most of it goes back to China,” he claimed. But, former President of the Arima Business Association (ABA), Raj Jadoo, attributed the influx of Chinese and Lebanese immigrants to laxed immigration policies.

“I don’t know if they go through the Chinese Association but somebody has to be supporting them. Somebody is allowing them to come through,” he said in an interview on Thursday.

Jadoo, owner of Jadoo’s Trading Limited, related his own experience with the immigration department when travelling to China. The procedure, he said, was anything but laxed.

“Before I go to China, you will be shocked to know that they ask you 99 million questions in Trinidad. They are very stringent but somehow they are relaxed when these people are coming in,” he said. “But this is something that has to be looked into because they are coming in droves.”

Jadoo observed that Chinese immigrants have also come into his business from time to time gauging the prices of merchandise.

“Can you imagine? They come with cameras, note pads and take down prices. They really bold- faced. That tells a story,” he said.

Insisting there was “more in the mortar than the pestle,” Jadoo said he had even received complaints about the trend from longstanding Chinese entrepreneurs.

“A business woman who I know told me recently that she could not understand what was happening and that there are new businesses springing up all around her,” he said.

President of the San Fernando Business Association, Daphne Bartlett, agreed that the immigrations laws and policies need to be strictly enforced.

“I know of people who want to come and live in Trinidad legally, Caribbean people, and they cannot do so because of the difficulties they have to encounter. But I do not know which back door these people are coming through,” she said.

Noting that the association had raised the issue with former Prime Minister Patrick Manning during the PNM’s last term in office, prior to the May 24, 2010 general election, Bartlett said she was deeply concerned about the legality of their operations.

“I mean, who are all of these new and strange-sounding people that are operating in public places. There needs to be some clarification,” she said.

“Every three minutes you drive, there is a strange restaurant, supermarket or gyro place and who is giving them permission?”

Bartlett also raised concerns about health standards at these businesses and called on the Ministry of Health to do its homework She related an experience in which she visited a Chinese-run grocery in Marabella, some time ago, and was mortified by the grimey carts customers were expected to use.

“The place must be kept clean,” she said.

Bartlett said there must be law and order if the society is expected to progress.

“If each citizen does not do his or her part, all will fall down. We have to protect our country and citizens have to get quite busy. There are still too many things we take for granted,” she said.

Whilst taking note of the growing number of Chinese and Lebanese businesses in the country, President of the Supermarket Association of Trinidad and Tobago Vernoin Persad, avoided casting aspersions on the immigrants or the legality of their operations.

However, he said the onus was on the Ministry of National Security to clear the air on what some consider to be a burning issue as it relates to the impact of such establishments on the local economy.

“Trinidad and Tobago is not alone in this. Similar trends are also occurring in Jamaica, Suriname and Guyana. It is regional and perhaps even global,” he said.

Persad said the Government must conduct a detailed study on the positives and negatives associated with such business activity.

“It can be very convenient to the general public because they are open on a daily basis and for long hours. But at what cost is this to the local economy?” he asked.

Alluding to VAT and taxes, Persad wondered if these businesses are subjected to routine audits as most other establishments.

He also wondered if the funds being generated at these businesses are re-invested or repatriated.

“If it is the latter, this could only lead to a haemorrhaging of the local economy. So, I am really concerned that there is a level playing field and that competition is fair,” Persad said, adding that there has been much speculation about the nature of such operations.

President of the Sangre Grander Chamber of Commerce Kenneth Boodhu agreed, but said the proliferation of Chinese establishments in the eastern district was not viewed negatively “as these arrivals do eventually essay to become integrated into the social mix.”

Boodhu, who also highlighted the proliferation of pudding, oysters, doubles and roti vendors, maintained an open mind.

He said: “If history is an indication, economic opportunities in Trinidad and Tobago will continue to sustain its growth making for the expansion of our rainbow country.

“For 200 years Chinese immigration to our island has been part of our developing history. The burgeoning of Chinese businesses throughout our towns, including Sangre Grande, can therefore, be viewed as a welcoming integration of our landscape possibilities.”

Boodhu said the Chamber was confident that the immigration laws will be applied equally and fairly as it relates to any influx of foreign entrepreneurs who may wish to enter and participate in business and economic development.

“This should most certainly apply to, especially, our Caricom partners. The recently highlighted issue of the Jamaican immigration problem, indicates that Governmental review and policy updates should be on the front burner long before they become confrontational,” he said.

Last November, some 12 Jamaicans were reportedly barred from entering T&T. It was later revealed that close to 17,000 Jamaicans were staying illegally in the country.

National Security Minister Gary Griffith subsequently told Newsday that if “these undocumented and unregistered Jamaicans” are working to maintain themselves, they would be depriving the State of an estimated $700 million in taxes annually.

On the gyro establishments, which usually prepare the meals in mini vans parked on sidewalks, Boodhu called on the Ministry of Health to be proactive in ensuring that standards and operational guidelines are instituted before any problems arise.

Boodhu said TT entrepreneurs have made their mark in many overseas markets, most noticeably in the USA and England.

This, he believes, is a testimony to, not only the acumen of local businessmen, but the fact that they were allowed by foreign Governments to legally enter their space.

“Reciprocation should be evident as we in Trinidad envision splendid opportunities of partnership, healthy and fair competition in a legal and ordered structure,” he added.

Contacted yesterday, National Security Minister Gary Griffith promised to give a comprehensive response to the issue in a few days time.

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