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Need to bring in construction workers threatens a storm in Bahamas

Prime Minister Lynden Pindling's Progressive Liberal Party government will be forced this year to waive its tough immigration laws and allow hundreds of foreign construction workers into the Bahamas.

The workers, to be brought in from the Philippines, Jamaica, and West Germany , are necessary because of the acute shortage of skilled manpower needed to build a new $66.5 million government-owned hotel and entertainment complex.

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The move could have explosive repercussions, however, in a nation sliding into recession and already overburdened by high unemployment and a massive illegal-alien problem.

Ironically, the government itself is largely to blame for the situation. During their 14 years in office the Progressive Liberals have been strongly committed to reducing foreign involvement in this formerly British colony. The leverage has been a hard-line immigration policy designed to expand job opportunities for Bahamians.

What in fact it did was to encourage expectations which the government's immigration restrictions have made it impossible to fulfill.

A too rapid attempt at Bahamianization in the early years, aggravated by the 1973-75 recession, reduced foreign investment sharply.

The backlash on construction, tourism, and finance plunged the country into a five-year period of economic stagnation.

Paradoxically, the job market squeeze was paralleled by a large-scale school expansion program, which, while it made education available to many more people, failed to prov vide the technical training necessary to fill jobs once held by expatriates.

With more than 5,000 unskilled school leavers joining the labor force annually, unemployment among young people between 16 and 25 has mushroomed to an estimated 30 percent.

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Social workers blame frustration for the high incidence of criminal activity by young people.

Nevertheless, few have been prepared to meet the demand for farm workers generated by government efforts to expand the agricultural sector.

The story has been much the same in the construction industry, which has been on the upturn recently because of several large hotel projects.

Employers say the principal reason is a reluctance by young Bahamians to take on blue-collar jobs regarded by many as menial and laborious.

Illegal Haitian labor has been used to fill the void. Haitians began arriving here in large numbers during the 1960s to escape the repressive regime of the late Haitian dictator Francois (Papa Doc) Duvalier.

The former government turned a blind eye to the "invasion," because of the need for unskilled labor in the Bahamas' booming economy.

Since then the Pindling government has tried, with relatively little success, to stem the flow through frequent deportations. Many of those that have washed ashore in the past three years were destined for Florida.

Illegal aliens are now 10 percent of the country's 240,000 population. The 3 .7 percent population growth rate is largely due to the high birthrate among Haitian immigrants. Pressure for social services, education, and housing has aggravated tensions between Bahamians and Haitians.

Despite the Bahamas' record of stability, there is reason for concern about the future.

After a buoyant three years the country appears headed for another recession, part reflecting the effects of a world economic slowdown. Tourism, the main source of foreign-exchange earnings, showed almost a 10 percent dip in the number of stopover visitors to Nassau during the past six months.

Also responsible, however, is a rehardening of the government position on foreign investment.

The Grand Bahama Port Authority Group of Companies, the Bahamas's largest private employer and its major property developer, recently announced the layoff of 10 percent of its work force.

One reason cited was the government's new restrictions on real estate sales, which have virtually precluded foreigners from buying property in the Bahamas.

With the job market once more starting to contract, the prospect of imported labor is fraught with unpleasant poss ibilities.

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