This time, the proverbial 'shot across the bow' has come from columnist Glendon Phillip, in Tuesday's issue of the Jamaica Observer newspaper, owned by the Chairman of Sandals Resort International Gordon Butch Stewart.
The Phillip article is encouraging Caribbean Community (CARICOM) leaders to "find their courage to confront a colleague [Gaston Browne] who is giving the region a bad name and causing potential investors to think twice before parking their funds in the English-speaking Caribbean."
According to the Observer article "Since 2014 when he first took power in Antigua and Barbuda, Gaston Browne has behaved like a renegade prime minister whose actions are scary to investors and who shows little or no respect for his colleagues, even at high-level meetings."
"Behind his back, Caricom leaders call Browne a “bully”, “uncouth”, “a man of poor upbringing” and other less palatable names. But no one has had the cojones to tell him to his face that he is undermining the integrity of the region as a safe place for foreign investment," Phillips lamented.
According to Phillip,"Browne, pursuing what he calls “entrepreneurial socialism”, has chosen the Caribbean and his country's most successful hotel brand, Sandals Resorts, to demonstrate his lack of concern for the welfare of the region and his own Antiguan people."
The row between the Gaston Brown government and Sandals Resorts International -SRI- began in 2016 when the two entered into a public exchange over the Antigua Government's objection to Sandals’ retention of a high percentage of sales tax income under what the Browne Government called “an unlawful agreement.”
Sandals collects an Antigua and Barbuda Sales Tax (ABST) from its customers and, according to Prime Minister Browne, keeps 65 per cent of the yield and remitting the remainder to the government.
The Antigua government is trying to change this but Sandals chairman, Gordon “Butch” Stewart, is claiming it means the rescinding of a binding and legal concession agreement previously entered into by the government of Antigua with the hotel chain.
The agreement was signed in 2009 with the then United Progressive Party (UPP) administration. However, Browne’s administration made it clear to SRI about its unwillingness to continue with the arrangement in its present form. The hotel claimed that this was a blatant breach of the agreement and called on the Antiguan government to revisit its decision.
On July 14, Sandals informed the Antigua government that it would close the 380-room Sandals Grand hotel for three months from September 20 to December 17 for essential maintenance work.
The Antigua and Barbuda parliament shortly after, approved an amendment to the Investment Authority Bill making it mandatory for large hotels to give notice of their intention to close.
The government said that the legislation is intended to provide protection to employees within the hotel sector.
The government said that all stakeholders, including trade unions, should have at least two months’ notice of the closure of these hotels for renovations and that they run the risk of losing concessions granted to them.
Leader of Government Business Lennox Weston told legislators the bill simply codifies good business practices.
“We are codifying in law to make sure that all actors know that in the hotel industry if you have roughly a 100 rooms or more and you intend to close for two or more months, you should notify all parties.
But Browne claimed that SRI’s decision to close the hotel was sabotage and an “act of hostility” designed to win tax concessions from the government.
Phillip agrees with the Sandals position claiming that "many of the [CARICOM] leaders are quietly critical of his unilateral decision, taken without provocation or evidence of anything untoward, to rescind an agreement signed by a previous Antiguan Government with Sandals which has a proven track record of massive contribution to the regional economy.
He says "agreements involving governments must be sacrosanct and we look to our leaders to protect the image of the region. If a Caricom state begins to tear up binding agreements with other Caricom members, it instantly signals to external foreign investors that they will have no protection or security on their investment and removes confidence from the region."
According to Phillip, "Sandals does not deserve this shabby treatment. The resort chain has enjoyed a pristine reputation throughout the islands of the Caribbean where it operates. It has contributed more to Antigua than its own Government in its 25 years in that eastern Caribbean island.
Browne has attacked the tax concessions which sensible governments have used to secure additional investments for the benefit of their people. Even the United States provides tax-free concession for 15 years for certain developments. Countries the world over offer concessions as a means of improving business and employing more of their people. That is nothing new."
- Countries: Antigua_Barbuda