Interview with Toni Sirju-Ramnarine

The following is an Interview with the Business Express Magazine featuring AMCHAM T&T President, Ms. Toni Sirju-Ramnaine

1. What were the major highlights of your term as president and the challenges faced?

I had the privilege of leading the organization through a dynamic and transformative period immediately as I stepped into the Presidency. It was at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic when businesses were grappling with lockdowns and remote working, and the issue of the availability of vaccines and mandating vaccines was front and center. 

Despite this disruptive period, I am grateful for the generous spirit of collaboration and positive engagements that emerged with key stakeholders to deliver fundamental support to businesses and citizens. The operationalization of the Mass Vaccination camp at NAPA is a powerful example where competing interests were put aside by various entities to support a cause meant to provide vital aid to citizens, maintain business continuity, and uplift our nation. The support AMCHAM received from our members in the private sector, alongside the aid from the government, NGOs, and civil society heralded the success of this joint venture with the TTCIC which resulted in around 35,000 doses of the COVID-19 vaccine being administered to the public.

I am also pleased with the quality of content and information our business events and conferences generated for our members during this period of remote work. Because of the high caliber of speakers, the quality of topics we championed, and access to key business leaders and decision-makers, our events increased capacity building by delivering thought leadership and keen business insights to help companies withstand the challenges of the pandemic.

We were happy for the government’s actions on some of our advocacy measures – namely, the prioritization of the National Statistical Institute (NSI) announced by the Prime Minister last November, the removal of VAT from personal computers and other technology products for the purpose of teleworking and remote learning in 2021, convened the Anti-Illicit Trade Task Force’s working group on tobacco in March 2022, and the appointment of a high commissioner at the T&T High Commission in Georgetown to further T&T’s national interests.

Also, the ability to engineer increased collaboration and engagement is a big part of the AMCHAM T&T legacy. As President, I was proud to advance this agenda through the strengthening of ties with our sister Amcham in Guyana, building on the long-standing relationship with the US Embassy, working with the Joint Chambers through the newly formed Crime Committee, increasing opportunities for digital transformation, enhancing advocacy on gender equality, and most recently, using ESG investments as a launchpad to build a more sustainable future our nation.

2. What needs to be done to improve the ease of doing business as many business people have complained about this… time and time again.

Crime continues to be a significant deterrent to business with escalating reports of murders, burglaries, violent home invasions, etc. threatening the safety of our citizens We each have a role to play in combatting crime even if that means redoubling our efforts to lobby for legislative policies to reduce incidents of crime or strengthening our corporate governance to address corruption and other white-collar crimes that in some cases fuel violent crime.
The Proclamation of the Public Procurement legislation is vital to ensuring investment attraction and a welcoming business environment. However, we must remove the ambiguity businesses have expressed with the new rules and regulations by increasing our sensitization efforts to ensure full compliance with the law. 

Additionally, we must continue advancing investments in technology and in developing critical skill sets to build the tech sector that will generate export-led growth to maintain our competitiveness and continuous survival in an ever-evolving world. 

We can also look to digitalizing customs procedures to remove the bureaucratic challenges, lengthy wait times, and backlog of goods impeding business. Also, operationalizing the National Unique Identifier will ensure the ease of doing business for citizens by eliminating the need for obtaining documentation from one state agency to present to and do business with another state agency.

3. What issues would you like AMCHAM to continue to advocate for?

As a business chamber whose primary purpose is to advance the interests of our members, we also recognize that we have an obligation to our country to demonstrate our own social conscience. Indeed, these objectives are not mutually exclusive as one supports the other. Therefore, we must ensure that our work does three things: advance measures to improve the ease of doing business, enhance the quality of life for citizens, and eliminate inequalities to create social mobility and harmony. Achieving these three goals will help us create a more attractive business environment while simultaneously adding increased value to our members. Therefore, with this as our objective, we must continue investing in technology to build a thriving tech sector so that our country becomes a real player in the global tech supply chain. An important facet of that is building the digital skill sets required in today’s jobs. This is something AMCHAM T&T has been working on and we’re excited to increase our offerings in this space. Building our human capacity in this area will open further opportunities such as near-shoring which will continue to make Trinidad and Tobago and its businesses competitive. We will continue to advocate for transparency and good governance so that our institutions are strengthened, and ethical business practices are promoted to instill investor confidence and create a fair and competitive business environment. I am also a firm believer in the power of collaboration. As a private sector, we are stronger when we have a unified voice on matters of mutual interest, so I very much look forward to building on the work that has begun with the other major business chambers in Trinidad and Tobago.  

4. With crime being at the forefront - has this been a priority for the chamber and what measures have been taken by the chamber to combat this problem?

Of course, addressing crime has been a major concern and priority for AMCHAM T&T because it has been impacting our member’s ability to conduct their businesses and has had significant impacts on our citizens. This is not a problem that can be tackled by any one entity. We have to come together in the first instance with the TTCIC, The Energy Chamber, and the TTMA. We started this process in January 2023 and since then we have engaged with our respective members and key stakeholders to develop a list of anti-crime strategies that are either policy-based or action-oriented. We have also held discussions with elected parliamentarians from both the government and the opposition. We are currently awaiting an appointment date with the Prime Minister to discuss the issue and present the list of anti-crime strategies being proposed by the private sector. 

Additionally, AMCHAM established a Rule of Law (RoL) committee that consists of representatives from the Law Association of T&T, the U.S. Embassy, and legal professionals from member companies to advocate for prison and criminal justice reform, anti-gang intervention, and youth crime prevention as well as to enforce transparency and anti-corruption measures. 

The committee has been working with the TTPS/White Collar Division to develop recommendations around prison reform and anti-gang intervention and has also met with the Executive Director of the Caribbean Centre for Human Rights to discuss possible collaboration on prison reform initiatives.

Last year we held engagements with the TTPS, through our relationship with the U.S. Embassy in the construction and outfitting of the E-Bike Recharging Station at the Shirvan Road Police Station in Tobago, and donated over 25,000 vegetable seedlings to the TTPS Interagency Task Force (IATF) “Hearts and Minds” unit at the Embassy sponsored “Christmas on the Hill” community engagement event for 1,000 children of Laventille and surrounding areas. Events such as this help to improve community policing and intelligence-led policing to help the TTPS address gang-related security challenges.

5. What are some of the problems AMCHAM has experienced in developing the tech sector and what more needs to be done to leverage economic opportunities through technology?

We have seen a lot of progress with digital adoption in many companies resulting in the early stages of the fintech hub to facilitate the transition to a cashless society and the digitalization of services in the public sector, however, we still have a lot of work to do to ensure that digital transformation drives economic growth and development. 

The lack of human capital with the required skills and competencies continues to be a hindrance. We need to start investing more in ICT skills development and education in the education system to advance digital literacy and develop the critical mass of required designers, coders, and analysts. This should also be extended to the current workforce in both the public and private sectors to maintain employability, facilitate digital transformation in their organizations, and ensure competitiveness in the ever-changing business landscape.

We also need the legislative environment to support innovation and keep up with emerging technologies. There are a number of digital strategies, policies, and frameworks that impact GORTT’s digital transformation initiatives which are yet to be adopted or incorporated. We need a digital policy that addresses open-source policy, remote working, data strategy, asset management, could computing, inter alia. 

Also, we must place immediate priority on the National Unique Identifier which was announced in the 2022 National Budget and welcomed by the business community. Since then, no further announcements have been made on its progress or implementation despite the obvious benefits this will have on improving the ease of doing business. 

Finally, but very critically, we need a cyber security strategy to ensure data privacy and security as we progress in our country’s digital transformation journey. Companies have already suffered the impacts due to cyber security breaches and other cybercrimes, The legislation on these issues must be updated to protect businesses while building the public’s trust and increasing the uptake and usage of the digitized services available.

6. The AMCHAM membership has reached out to me about the ongoing issue at Customs and Excise Division, how is the chamber dealing with this issue, and is a meeting carded with the comptroller.

The challenges faced by our members in the express logistics industry involve a high backlog of shipments that limits clearance of goods, lengthy inspections which grind trade to a halt, and increased upliftment charges that far exceed the cost of the product which reduces the competitive advantage of SMEs that depend on small margins to stay in business and create employment.

These challenges call for serious concern as the additional costs incurred due to storage and other charges significantly increase the final cost of goods. Due to these additional charges, the final products imported by businesses become uncompetitive and lose value. 

AMCHAM will continue to engage the Government to intervene in this serious matter. These ongoing problems require the urgent attention of the government to lend assistance in providing solutions to help businesses keep their customers and maintain their business operations without any further disruption.

7. Why is it important for the private sector to invest in ESG measures?
ESG is important because it makes good business sense, and it is the right thing to do. Customers, investors, and employees all want to know that they are associated with a company that is doing well, but also doing good. These key stakeholders want transparency in what the company is doing, and this will only increase as critical social and environmental issues continue to be brought more into focus. 

Therefore, if companies want to survive and stay competitive, attract and retain talent, expand their customer base, and remain competitive and attractive to investors they will have to develop sustainable business practices that positively impact social change.

ESG helps companies to reduce risk and differentiate themselves from others by investing in what their company stands for. This really comes down to investing in the essence of who the company is and what is their ethos. It goes beyond profit margins but instead focuses on whether the business is being conducted to create value for people and the planet. 

I am happy to see so many local companies already getting involved by supporting the energy transition to develop the renewable energy sector, introducing low-carbon products, launching waste reduction campaigns to support the green initiative, and embracing DEI policies as part of their governance and social responsibility. 

8. AMCHAM has been a big proponent of gender equality, what more needs to be done to promote gender equality/equity in business/society and what advice would you give to women seeking leadership roles?

It's a social and economic imperative that we ensure the full and equal participation of women in every aspect of our society. We have made tremendous strides in women advancing to many prominent positions in our nation, however, a lot more needs to be done by way of calling out discrimination, gender bias, and inequality that women face in our society. We must protect women and girls from sexual harassment and other forms of abuse and violence. I believe the private sector has a role to play in this regard, which is why we partnered with IGDS, UWI, and the Coalition Against Domestic Violence (CADV) to host a GBV workshop with the aim of getting companies to offer both training and support to employees who are survivors of GBV. We also must address the gender pay gap that exists in specific sectors and ensure that we are offering training and career development initiatives through mentorship of women in their respective jobs to help them advance to leadership positions in their places of employment.

Ultimately, we need to be looking at the systemic reasons that impede women’s progress. How can it be that we are graduating more women than men every year in our academic system, yet they remain so under-represented at senior levels in business and in society? It can begin by simply looking at how job descriptions are written, focusing on ‘hard’ skills that are more often associated with men’s characteristics, to how much paternity and maternity leave is given in the workplace to thoughtful and bespoke development programmes and so much more. The point is, if we really want this to change, we need to be more intentional in our decisions and actions.

The advice I will give to women is to believe in themselves and silence that self-doubting voice we all seem to have. Create opportunities and grasp those that are presented for your development and progression. I also think that even while we still find it a struggle to find equal footing, it is important to be kind. Give the benefit of the doubt to men who may genuinely not recognize the unconscious biases and barriers that exist to women’s equal participation and help bring that awareness to them. Men are important allies if we truly want societal change. I have mostly found that when you highlight these issues to progressive and open-minded men, it is not met with defensiveness, but rather it helps to open their eyes to the woman’s experience and reality. But kindness also extends to fellow women as well. As women climb the career ladder, we must create space for our sisters who are following our lead and hoping to achieve their own success. We understand the challenges we face and so we must support each other through the obstacles that hinder progress and development. 

AGM 2023 - Inaugural President's Speech (Stuart Franco - The TSL Group)