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New T&T Chamber CEO Ian De Souza.

T&T Chamber to work with Govt/Labour to solve problems

Low vaccination rates and managing in a pandemic major challenges

Rising food prices already hurting the most vulnerable

Newly-appointed chief executive officer of the T&T Chamber of Industry and Commerce Ian De Souza says one of his main focus will be to deepen collaboration with Government and labour to ensure issues affecting the business sector are understood and solved to address the concerns of various interests.

In a wide-ranging interview with the Business Guardian, De Souza said he is particularly mindful that as a society, everything is interconnected.

According to De Souza the atmosphere has to be created to make it attractive for businesses to invest, generate economic activity and employment, and produce taxes used for running the country’s affairs building infrastructure and national development.

The T&T Chamber’s new CEO said he also intends to build on the work previously done by the board and the executive of the chamber to advance engagement with members.

So what are some of the main challenges facing the business community?

According to De Souza­—whose appointment took effect on January 10, three weeks ahead of the departure of former CEO Gabriel Faria—the greatest obstacles are managing through the COVID-19 pandemic, meeting expenses and continued growth.

“The major expenses that would be of concern would be those associated with employees and with obligations to landlords and financiers. The issue therefore, becomes the ‘top line’ – sales revenue. That is where the expenses are covered and that is why there is the clamour for businesses to continue to operate,” he explained.

However, De Souza noted that Government has been helpful with its support programmes, and so too have many landlords and financiers.

But he advised that support arrangements cannot continue indefinitely as the economy and businesses must be kept open and running.

And with current COVID-19 challenges, De Souza said businesses need even greater support in the ease of doing business and the creation of a more enabling environment for existing and future investors.

“We are all aware of the country’s ratings on the ease of doing business. At 105 out of 190 countries, they are admittedly unflattering and not to be proud. However, as a Chamber we are pleased to see Government addressing at least one of the issues, the digitisation of its business, by the establishment of a specific ministry for this purpose,” he added.

How can Government, the Chamber and other businesses therefore, work together to create a more harmonious environment?

According to De Souza, through its various joint committees, the chamber will continue to work with Government to ensure that issues and solutions are tabled and discussed, and measures are taken that are conducive to business.

Regarding the difficulty many businesses still face in accessing foreign exchange, De Souza said viability and access to forex is not simple and cannot be effectively addressed “without a degree of discomfort to the society.”

De Souza said the impact of COVID-19 on tourism-based markets in the Caribbean region has also been quite severe coupled with manufacturers also suffering from a reduction in export sales.

Hence, he advised that T&T needs to address the demand side of the forex equation, noting that tastes and consumption patterns continue to favour imported goods.

Admittedly as well, he said, there is insufficient local production of goods required for manufacturing and day-to-day consumption to replace imports.

And in the basket of solutions De Souza said suggested depreciation of the exchange rate and import tariffs on certain categories of goods.

“Measures such as these will have an adverse impact on both the cost and standard of living in the country. Unless circumstances change quickly and drastically, however we may have to collectively face the discomforts as a nation that is looking to grow,” he added.

And on whether the port of Port-of-Spain should be privatised to address perennial delays De Souza said any long-term measure that would result in an improvement in efficiency would be welcomed.

He cited that problems at the port, particularly at key times of the year, are very disruptive to business, adding that such negative impacts on manufacturing and trade increase the cost of doing business and again ultimately track into the price to the consumer.

According to De Souza, it is therefore, in the national interest to address issues of investment, control and operation of the port.

But he suggested as with any other major institution which is Government-run, consideration will have to be given to the impact on labour.

Rising food prices a concern

The increasing price of food is a result of supply chain issues being experienced worldwide and in major manufacturing centres in particular, De Souza said, adding that COVID-19 has also interrupted production systems as well as the supply of raw material that are inputs for manufacturing and finished goods,

These issues are compounded by shipping lines faced with price increases.

Trinidad is not alone as most countries are suffering the same fate, De Souza noted.

However, he said if the situation is prolonged it will be difficult to avoid the inflationary effect and the rise in the cost of living.

According to De Souza Government will therefore, have to monitor the situation as many of the most vulnerable in the society have already suffered a reduction in income.

However, he said the Chamber will collaborate with Government to identify measures that would assist in bringing relief.

Mandatory vaccines?

The chamber has supported workplace vaccine policies and the wider use of safe zones to protect the unvaccinated and encourage vaccination.

De Souza said while vaccinations may not be mandated across the board, there certainly is a need to mandate the creation of safe zones for staff and customers depending on the nature of the business.

“The fact is that if it is not possible to work from home, we have to be able to create a safe zone and this is where vaccine mandates become necessary.

“We have seen many companies in the private sector work collaboratively with their employees and they have achieved vaccination rates of as much as 90 per cent,” he said.

According to De Souza, vaccination rates however, remain too low and with variants of the virus, such as Delta and Omicron, the country might be left with no choice but to take more stringent measures to achieve the level of vaccination rates necessary.

The impact of crime on business

There needs to be firm and visible leadership from the protective services and the legal system to deal with crime, De Souza said, adding that the Chamber has been very vocal on the impact of high levels of crime on investment.

He added, it’s not only physical criminal activities but blue and white collar crimes who continue to pose challenges.

Additionally, he said there’ s the issue of some members of society who chose to treat laws and regulations “as optional.”

But crime, in all of its forms De Souza emphasised results in a significant and unnecessary cost to doing business which eventually trickles into pricing and cost to customers, both public and private.

However, De Souza said the chamber is happy for the work of the Police Service, difficult as it may be, but is pleased efforts also include the Fraud Investigation Bureau, the Anti-Corruption Investigation Bureau and the Financial Intelligence Unit.

“We applaud the various initiatives and will continue to support through our participation on the committees that have been addressing the issue.

“Like the rest of society, we see the issue of crime as a scourge of which we absolutely must be rid,” De Souza stressed.