AGM 2019 - President's Speech

26th Annual General Meeting 

President's Opening Remarks

Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen.

Thank you all for the trust and confidence placed in re-electing me as your President for another term. I am truly honoured to continue to contribute to the leadership and stewardship of AMCHAM T&T - the Pathway to the Americas.

We live in a complex and fast-changing environment which includes as many challenges as it does opportunities. In these uncertain times, we have to continue to represent our members and help you to do more business. We recognise that we have a key role to play a role in the attraction of investment into T&T. We also have a responsibility to make it easier to do business in T&T and more so, we have a responsibility to make our society better. At present, we are experiencing greater international complexity probably than we have seen since the fall of the Berlin Wall. Thus, there is a need for us to strategically plan how we move forward as a Chamber and continue to represent the needs of our members.

To do this, we at AMCHAM T&T need to be nimble and embrace change. The old ways of doing things may not be completely relevant to the current context. But to move an entire society into a different era, we need leadership and collaboration. Not just leadership from the government – although that is very important – but leadership from the business community, for we too have to change; leadership from the labour movement, for they too need to become relevant again; leadership from the professional class; leadership within communities and personally, we all have to take more individual responsibility for our society.

Two years ago, we called for more bi-partisanship in Parliament. We have seen glimmers of hope but not a real sustained effort at this. The modernization of our state cannot happen in the current hyper-politicized environment. We need to work together. We have to agree on national goals and collaborate. In this vein, to be truthful, both parties can do a better job. The uproar over the amendment to the FOIA was unnecessary.

If the Government had consulted beforehand, I’m sure they would have been congratulated for making the process of attaining public information simpler. But by not consulting, by not collaborating, what should have been something good became almost toxic.

The natural talent and adaptability of our people, our strategic geographical location, well-developed industrial sector, sophisticated financial sector and excellent trade and political relationships with countries such as the U.S. are all positives and unlikely to change. But the reality is that doing business in Trinidad & Tobago is becoming increasingly difficult.

Our counterparts in the Caribbean have recognised the need to shift the way they work and may soon surpass us and beings recognized as the commercial capital of the Caribbean. Jamaica for example, is reducing its debt and improving its ease of doing business, while we are doing the opposite. Guyana is investing in renewables and looking to monetize hydrocarbons. While we, after more than 110 years of petroleum, are still scrambling to move toward alternative sources of energy. Barbados has taken our idea to initiate the process of exploring the possibility of making one of their airports a pre-clearance port, while we still cannot seem to even write a letter to the US to start that process.

We have to do better.

Taking advantage of our strong bilateral relationship with the US is one way we can do better.

Although both countries have held different policy positions in some instances, we have always managed to have extremely strong and close ties. Evidence of this can be seen from the US side, in the high caliber of the US Ambassadors to Port of Spain. Amb. Roy Austin, Amb. Beatrice Welters and Amb. John Estrada were all distinguished in their respective fields and had close relationships with the sitting presidents during their time. The same applies to our current Ambassador, Joseph Mondello. We should not take the US’s interest in having diplomatic representation in T&T with direct ties to the White House lightly.

Moreover, updated trade data from the US Department of Commerce this week shows trade in goods alone between our countries increased by 13%, or $650 million USD, bringing the two countries' overall trade in goods to $5.8 Billion USD. It is important that we do not forget that over 40% of all TT goods exports went to the United States, giving TT a trade surplus with the US.

By comparison, recently, figures touted by the Chinese Embassy and our Ministry of Foreign Affairs show a mere $730 USD million in trade between China and T&T, a figure which is less than 15% of US-TRINIDAD & TOBAGO trade in goods alone.

US companies such as Citi, Nu Iron, EOG, GE, Myerson, PALIG, Microsoft and so many more continue to provide jobs and are responsible corporate citizens. It is our hope that we can build on this and attract more US investment and build more T&T – US trade in the coming years.

In my first year in office, I laid out three major policy mandates for this Chamber and its membership. I pledged to strengthen our position as an organisation and catalyst, for the sustained economic development of Trinidad and Tobago, by AMCHAM T&T taking the lead in:

1. Working towards Gender Parity

2. Improving the Business Climate and Focussing on Investment

3. And Moving towards Digital/Technological Transformation

On the issue of Gender Parity, I am happy to report that we are walking the talk. Two more competent, well-qualified women have joined our Board this year, bringing our ratio of women to men up to 7 : 9 or 44% on our Board. Not that we want to throw any of the great guys off the Board, but I encourage you to start thinking of additional, competent, and qualified candidates who can be nominated next year and help us get up to at least 50 – 50. Our annual Women’s Leadership Event continues to grow and, our Women’s Leadership Mentorship Programme which we run in collaboration with the IDB is in its second year. This year, our mentees have more than tripled and include several of our AMCHAM T&T employees. Also in collaboration with the IDB, about two months ago, we held a workshop on practical steps for improving gender parity in companies in Trinidad & Tobago.

We will continue to push on this issue to ensure that our organisations are safe and comfortable for all genders. This means addressing violence against women, rewarding equal pay for equal work, securing maternity leave packages, implementing day-care systems, and enforcing zero-tolerance policies against sexual harassment and other workplace discrimination. We cannot do this alone, however. Thus, I ask you our members and I challenge all individual businesses, to assess whether you have policies and systems to address these and, where you don’t, please consider implementing these policies. We are here to support you with this and can be called upon if needed.

The second point on our agenda was Improving the Business Climate and Focusing on Investment.

At the core of our mission though, is creating the conditions for businesses to grow, for we believe that by providing economic opportunity and economic freedom, we provide social mobility and greater opportunity for all.

Widespread institutional weakness and systemic corruption continue to affect the ease of doing business. The enforcement of contracts is a key weakness in our Global Competitiveness Ranking. It relates to the speed – or lack thereof – of the judicial system. We need to re-think the petty claims court and work harder at speeding up the judicial system not just for business but for all citizens. We applaud the work already being done on the latter through the option for the elimination of jury trials, for example, and encourage continued attention to be paid to the efficiency of the Judiciary.

We are eager for the full proclamation and operationalization of the Public Procurement Legislation. AMCHAM T&T believes the implementation of this law is a key tool in rooting out the ballooning corruption in our state sector, which contributes to crime and affects investment. We are optimistic that the Government will stay true to its word and stay on track to have this legislation proclaimed by the August 2019 promised deadline.

In this vein, we remain vociferous in our call for more to be done to tackle white-collar crime. Such crimes are not victimless. In fact, they are the most insidious as they “silently’ undermine systems and institutions making it harder and harder for law-abiding citizens to get things done efficiently. We look forward to more prosecutions and convictions as a result of Suspicious Activity Reports compiled by the FIU.

A key tool in that will also be the operationalization of a Revenue Authority that is insulated from political interference. We need to widen the tax net so the burden does not inordinately fall on salaried workers and easy-to-target compliant companies. Detecting and prosecuting tax evaders is also a key tool in fighting white-collar crime including money laundering and the financing of illicit activity. Hopefully, a more efficient tax collection system will also result in less delays in settling VAT and other tax refunds.

And while our focus is on white-collar crime at AMCHAM T&T, we cannot ignore the effects of violent crime. We have to do better in tackling this scourge and protecting our vulnerable communities. That is why AMCHAM T&T is proud of the work we are doing – as little as it may be – in working with the Russel Latapy High School and the St James Police Youth Club. Our society is our responsibility and we will not shirk our responsibility.

Linked to the ease of doing business is the utilization of technology in both the public and private sectors. The reality is that the time for excuses is long past. The government needs to ensure that wherever it interfaces with the public – collection of taxes, provision of passports or birth certificates, payment of court-imposed fines, filing of customs declarations, etc., there are payment gateways and online windows for full, seamless information transfer.

We strongly recommend the implementation of a single national unique identifier for the state to identify and interact with citizens. This will help streamline both government services and processes and provide an additional tool for rooting out corruption. And, it can be done quickly.

The digital transformation age is the very definition of competitiveness. Technology, therefore, therefore, needs to be embraced more by both the public and private sectors. The truth is that our private sector to is lagging behind in technological adaptation. If companies want to survive they are going to have to embrace this reality and recognize that emphasis on the role of human capital, innovation, resilience, and agility, are not only the drivers but also the defining features of economic success in the 4th Industrial Revolution.

AMCHAM T&T also believes the Tech industry is a major pillar of a diversified economy. Furthermore, it is a critical component in creating high-value and exciting jobs, that encourage our young people to stay in Trinidad and Tobago even as they work and play in the global value chain. A tech industry can attract both local and foreign investment and increase competitiveness.

We are perfectly positioned to transform these opportunities into growth. AMCHAM T&T recently wrapped up our first annual Tech Hub Islands Summit (t.h.i.s.) conference in June 2019. This conference is the catalyst to take advantage of rapid technological shifts and advance our learnings, which will serve to bolster our market share, support our clients, and build strategic alliances and partnerships.

Finally, I want to raise what we consider to be one of the most pressing issues facing our country in the next few years. You all would have heard that our National Insurance System is underfunded. You all would have seen coverage of our most recent migrant crisis. So, let’s take a step back.

The reality is that our population is rapidly aging AND our labour force participation rate is falling. As such we need a comprehensive National Migration Policy and Strategy. We, therefore, urge the Government to establish an empowered team to consider this and offer our services to assist in this regard. Let me make it clear, we welcome the Government’s move to allow temporary residence and work permits to Venezuelan migrants – it’s a good thing – but we cannot treat that policy as isolated and we cannot wait another ten or eleven months to start thinking about what next. Population planning is key to our country’s long-term growth and stability.

What stands out about the year ahead of us involves our organization – our staff, our board, and our members embracing change. The global business environment is changing every day, and we walk a delicate line between preserving some of the tried-and-true traditions and creating new ways to engage our business community that are significantly different than what we’ve done in the past.

In closing, let me take this moment to express my gratitude to our C.E.O. Nirad Tewarie for his loyalty and dutiful commitment he has shown to AMCHAM T&T. Nirad, you have shouldered the burden of the great vision that makes AMCHAM T&T the celebrated and illustrious organisation it has become today and for this, and your strong and passionate leadership, I thank you.

To the staff at AMCHAM T&T, who work so tirelessly to build this organisation and maintain contact and communication with our members so that we are all closely connected and informed, I offer you my most heartfelt gratitude and appreciation.

To the board and committee members, please know your hard work, passion, commitment, and dedication is truly and greatly valued. Because of your broad vision and eclectic mix of ideas and dreams, AMCHAM T&T has grown in membership and stature.

And, to our most loyal and faithful members, we would be nothing without you. I thank each and every one of you for the generous support and unflinching loyalty you have shown to this organization over the past twenty-seven years.

Thank you for your time and attention and I look forward to working with and for you for another year!

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