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Traffickers say new tariffs crippling trade with Trinidad

Traffickers say new tariffs crippling trade with Trinidad


Persons involved in moving agricultural produce from St Vincent and the Grenadines (SVG) to Trinidad and Tobago and Barbados are calling on the relevant authorities to do something about issues they say are slowly crippling the import/export business between these islands.{{more}}

The major problems, according to a number of traffickers who spoke to SEARCHLIGHT on Monday, are the 70 per cent duty which is now being levied on aerated beverages, beers and a number of other products; the foreign exchange restrictions in Trinidad and Tobago and Barbados; and the absence of stable options for transporting their produce out of the state.

Of the six traffickers who spoke to SEARCHLIGHT, all but one shied away from giving a name. The other five offered to speak on the condition of anonymity.

Leslyn Davis, who buys produce (dasheen, eddoes, potatoes, yams, ginger and coconuts, among other things,) to sell in Trinidad, explained that Trinidadian currency cannot be exchanged for Eastern Caribbean currency in SVG, while in Trinidad and Tobago, a trafficker, as of last year, is only allowed to convert a small amount of Trinidad currency to EC or US.

She said that persons once got around this by purchasing products in Trinidad and reselling them here, but their businesses have been stagnating since January, when high import duties were placed on some of their major sellers.

“I used to buy goods and bring up, but the duty too high now. I used to get the money change in the bank in Trinidad, but now I not getting it changed at all,” said Davis, who added that at one point traffickers were able to purchase a bank draft in Trinidad to bring out their money, but that too is now problematic.

“The Trinidadians complain that too much foreign exchange leaving their country, so we used to buy to sell back and make back our money, but now, about three weeks ago, the duty gone so sky high you can’t bring the goods again,” explained Davis. She noted that at one point, traffickers used to go to a place called Custom House in Trinidad, where they would get certain documents that would allow them to get money from the Central Bank, but that has also changed. She added also that Western Union and Money Gram were once options, but now because of money laundering and drug trafficking issues, their money cannot come through these agencies.

“You can’t get it change; nobody want TT money,” stressed Davis, declaring that this is the only way she knows how to make a living and she is begging the authorities to rectify the issues.

She noted that as a result, the boat goes to Trinidad filled with produce and the boat owners are complaining that they may soon not get enough products coming back to St Vincent to make the entire trip worthwhile.

Speaking anonymously, a 15-year veteran trafficker said that the 70 per cent duty, among other things, is killing her business.

“I have been involved in trafficking for 15 years. I have not stopped, but I don’t know how to sell the items that have been affected by the increased duty. I have to keep selling them for the same price right now because other traffickers are doing that. It is affecting my profits,” said the woman, who revealed that she has stopped taking produce to Trinidad to sell because of a number of things, including the amount of produce that sometimes floods the market over there.

“I use to bring goods to get back the money. We never use to come with money, just buy goods to come up. We can’t change the money here and we used to buy the drinks to make the money, but now the drinks tax too high. Import duties up. I have children to mind, so have to find a way around it,” said the woman, who plies her trade in Kingstown.

A male trafficker explained that to clear one case of 12 ounce Busta soft drinks from customs costs EC$29.80, after buying it in Trinidad for EC$13.40, while the 20 ounce Busta drinks used to cost EC$18 to clear, but now cost EC$37.50 for one case.

He added that the boat responsible for the transportation is now saying that they can’t bring up stuff profitably as they did before, so they might have to stop.

“Only one boat does the trip now and it used to be five. Now there is only Admiral Bay and Persia, but Persia only brings up steel.”

He said that the money exchange is a serious issue that can take up to 41 days at a time to sort out, while farmers knock on your door in an effort to get paid for their produce that has already been sold.

He added that if the trade between Trinidad and SVG does not exist, they are “dead”.

“Traffickers catching their royal to get money change and people can’t pay their farmers. On Fridays, farmers on you back and they can’t get money. A trafficker with TT$80,000 walking around Trinidad is in danger. You have to pay security when you land in Trinidad market and the same security can set up somebody to rob you. I was robbed at gunpoint already and other people have been robbed at knife point,” revealed the man, who noted that he deals with farmers from Richmond in North Leeward to Fancy on the Windward side of the island.

He noted that among the payments that importers must fork out dollars for are: customs duty, customs surcharge, excise tax, a one per cent insurance and then 15 per cent VAT compounded.

Another trafficker said in her opinion, “nobody addressing trafficking and this is an area that doing the most business in St Vincent and helping poor people.”

When contacted on Monday, Minister of Agriculture Saboto Caesar said that as part of preparations for his budget presentation this month, he met with several farmers’ groups and organizations, farmers themselves and traffickers and some of these issues were raised.

“They made a claim that when they bring up the produce, because of the tariffs at the port, it doesn’t make sense, because they buss at the port, so what they were asking for is a preferential treatment at the port,” said Caesar, observing that addressing that issue is not something in his purview as Minister of Agriculture.

“That is a serious finance matter, but I did raise the issue at Cabinet level for advice to instruct them how to move the currency and I await the director general of finance and planning who is putting together for me a documentation, which he stated can possibly rectify the problem,” explained Caesar.

The Minister said that he raised the issue last week Wednesday at Cabinet.

He also questioned if one-way shipments would be feasible for the boat owners.

“What is the bigger issue is even if they can bring back cash, the question arises is a one-way shipment feasible for the boatman? The boatmen have nothing to come back with, so it has to be looked at dually. Will the boatman see it viable to take down produce and come back empty? That mean they would have to increase the cost of going down, but I would have raised the issue.”

Caesar said that he would be in a position to address the traffickers “in a week or so” and noted that so far, the trade has not been affected, but the traffickers are asking the State to intervene to regularize the situation, as they want to be able to bring home their money.

“It is not a simple matter,” stressed the Agriculture Minister.

At the opening ceremony for East Caribbean Bottlers Inc (ECBI) in November 2014, Prime Minister Dr Ralph Gonsalves said $25.6 million worth of aerated drinks had been imported into SVG in the five preceding years, while over that same period only $6 million worth of soft drinks had been exported.(LC)