American Chamber sounds alarm: CRIMINALS ‘TAXING’ BUSINESSES

The content originally appeared on: Trinidad and Tobago Newsday

Amcham president Stuart Franco. – Angelo Marcelle

Crime is costing business owners significant amounts of money, with 18 per cent reporting they have been asked to pay bribes and 57 per cent saying they are spending more on security and insurance because of crime.

This was revealed at the American Chamber of Commerce (Amcham) annual economic outlook conference at the Hyatt Regency,  on Wednesday, in which discussions about crime, the role of the private sector in addressing it and its effect on business took centre stage.

According to a survey among the business community conducted by Amcham and Ernst and Young, nine per cent of the respondents said either they or their company had been threatened or coerced to pay “protection money” to avoid harm or damage to their business through criminal activities in the past year.

Survey respondents included business unit heads and directors from businesses across 11 industries.

Amcham TT president Stuart Franco devoted a significant portion of his opening address to the need to address both physical and cyber crimes.

Franco said the success of TT’s economic and social policies depends on crime being under control.

He said the current situation requires not just prayer but action and greater collaboration “from all of society.”

Franco said the private sector is “ready and willing” to work with the Government, the Opposition and the TT Police Service (TTPS) on the issue but said several issues within the country must also be addressed.

He called for the Forensic Science Centre to be modernised and equipped with state-of-the-art DNA testing and equipment.

“Additionally, we must develop a comprehensive and centralised database with DNA profiles from all convicted offenders, suspects, missing persons as well as victims of crime.”

Franco said the TTPS should also benefit from some modernisation.

“We also need to ensure that our digital transformation journey extends to the TTPS to procure state-of-the-art software for managing the flow and oversight of investigations and the use of hardware, software and cyber security protocols to protect case file data. This should extend all the way through to case management.”

He also called for data analytics to be used by police to predict and prevent flare-ups after initial crimes and to identify and disrupt gang activity.

Amcham CEO Nirad Tewarie said Amcham has also offered leadership training skills to the Ministry of National Security and the TTPS “right down to the station level.”

He said these offers have not yet been accepted but said they will continue to extend the offer.

“Soft leadership skills and that kind of thing is an offer we’ve made several times. We make it again. We are here, and we want to help.”

Franco said any changes to the judicial and policing systems will be in vain if greater focus is not placed on addressing white-collar crime and corruption.

Describing them as “insidious,” he said those two things are destroying TT.

“We need to have concerted action and results targeting the big fish, the people who pretend to be legitimate business people but are deeply entrenched in criminal activity.”

Franco also called for the simultaneous strengthening of the judicial system by reducing the gap between arrest and sentencing and providing better avenues for rehabilitating ex-convicts.

He said if inroads are not made and crime is not controlled, TT and its institutions will be weakened more.

“More investments will be halted and our professionals will continue to migrate, and more lives will be lost.”

Guardian Holdings Ltd Group CEO Ian Chinapoo shared similar concerns during a panel discussion.

Chinapoo said crime is contributing to brain drain and deterring investors.

“There are people who want to come to our country to live and work. When I was in banking, there were investors who wanted to come to TT but ended up in Colombia, who had improved their crime situation because they didn’t want their staff living and working here.”

Franco noted the increase in cyber-attacks and cyber crimes, which he said have become “a serious impediment to business and national security.”

Thirty-six per cent of respondents in the survey listed an increase in cyber security risks as one of the greatest external risks to their business, making it the second highest concern among business executives compared to last year when it ranked sixth.

Ninety-one per cent of respondents felt cyber security is a major consideration and should be a major area of investment, while just nine per cent said they had no cyber security initiatives.

Sixty-three per cent of companies surveyed said they intend to strengthen their cyber security framework within the next year by investing in cyber resilience and recovery, while 52 per cent intend to invest in cloud security.

Half of the respondents said their company will implement data privacy programmes, and 28 per cent indicated their intention to get cyber security insurance.

Urging business owners to do more to protect their client and company data and infrastructure from cyber criminals, Franco said the proposed cyber security tax allowance should be welcomed by the private sector.

“It allows for additional incentives for companies to invest more in personnel education and technologies to protect their operations while simultaneously strengthening national security with the appropriate cyber security solutions for their businesses.”

“We need urgent legislative reform to criminalise cyber crimes and cyber criminals to protect both the interests of business and national security.”

Chinapoo said while people tend to focus on the violence and the murders, there is also crime happening at all levels that stems from corruption.

He pointed to kidnappings as an example.

“The reach that we have seen into cyber, people’s data being out there and people being targeted. Before someone is kidnapped… their financial situation has to be known. People (are) not going to kidnap somebody who can’t pay.”

The panel was also asked about the proposed crime talks between the government and opposition that are yet to take place.

The Opposition on Monday held its own public anti-crime consultation series at the La Joya Complex, St Joseph, during which Opposition Leader Kamla Persad-Bissessar endorsed calls for a state of emergency (SoE).

Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley is set to speak on Thursday at a PNM public meeting in the Croisee, San Juan, where he may respond to the calls for an SoE and address public concerns about crime.

The panel did not answer questions submitted to them about an SoE but Chinapoo said he believes the talks can take place if the government and opposition put partisan politics aside.

“I don’t think any criminal asks your political affiliation before they rob you or shoot you or kill you. So hopefully, the folks that we have entrusted with our societal needs in terms of the politicians can get together and get it done.”

He said unless politicians “get over” themselves and stop thinking about the next election, the public will have to start thinking about how future generations will survive in TT.

“I think we have good people. I think their heart is in the right place, and I think they can come together. And find a way forward that is better than this.”