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Chaguanas Chamber of Industry and Commerce President Richie Sookhai.

While Finance Minister Colm Imbert says the country has sufficient foreign exchange reserves, business people remain starved of foreign currency making it difficult to purchase goods and pay bills. Chaguanas Chamber of Commerce president Richie Sookhai and Greater San Fernando Area Chamber of Commerce president Kiran Singh shared this view in response to remarks made by Imbert in his mid-year budget review presentation in Parliament yesterday. Responding to a suggestion by a local radio commentator that government approach the IMF, Imbert said Trinidad and Tobago has sufficient foreign exchange reserves in the vicinity of US $7 billion.

Sookhai, however, said, “Businesses especially at a time like this are really having a hard time accessing foreign exchange to pay bills, supplies and whatnot. Even I am having difficulty even bringing in essential goods into the country. Now it is becoming a lot more competitive than before given that the global supply chain itself has been under strain due to the COVID-19.”

Noting that prices are starting to rise, he questioned, “How are these businesses going to compete especially when you don’t even have foreign exchange to pay for the produces?”

On the issue of SMEs (small medium enterprises) unable to qualify for the zero-interest loan because they did not have audited financials, Sookai is hoping to partner with the ministry and the relevant ministries to address this. “We will be looking forward to see how it could reach the business community, especially those who need it at this time, he said.

While the government may not be in a position to give monetary relief like the US, he said the government could consider writing off T&TEC bills for adversely affected business sectors, including the retail and restaurant industry.

Noting that the inability to access foreign exchange is having an adverse effect on the Small and Medium-sized Enterprises (SME) sector, Singh said, “We are severely disadvantaged against large conglomerates, especially in the global economic climate and the ravages of the pandemic. And we continue to appeal for government assistance in this regard for the survival of business within the SME sector.”

Singh said the chamber had expected the minister to address the financial concerns of MSMEs (micro-small and medium sized), he said surplus funds given to the commercial banks for the SME sector should have been allocated to service VAT refunds.

He added, “Entrepreneurial Relief Grant from NEDCO Financial services offered by NEDCO should be more heavily advertised in print, electronic and social media. The micro-enterprise sector is in desperate need of financial assistance and is largely unaware of the services accessible through NEDCO.”

Despite several appeals, Singh said T&TEC has not given any concessions.

“We continue to appeal to the government to ease the burden of the MSME sector as we remain closed.”

Noting that the purpose of the HSF fund is to provide financial relief to the economy, he said, “ This is certainly the time to use the HSF as an instrument to assist the MSME sector. We have been generating fiscal budget deficits for several years. The HSF can be the short term solution to reduce the deficit and stem further borrowings.”