An online petition against the drastic increase in the annual contribution of the Chamber of Commerce has been signed almost 700 times within a few days. There is great indignation about the unprecedented increase in fees on all three BES islands.
What is striking in the discussion on the subject, is that hardly anyone is defending the Chamber. On the contrary, the Board and even the Management are widely reviled. Until a few days ago, the Chamber incomprehensibly patted itself on the back and reacted somewhat shocked: An internet consultation, in which exactly zero people participated, had not produced any signal that entrepreneurs would be against the new rates. In the opinion of the Chamber, there had been ‘sufficient communication’ on the subject.
It must be said that the ‘consultation’, as carried out by the House of Representatives and the Ministry of Economic Affairs (EZK) is of unprecedented sadness. First of all, because nobody participated in it. Residents of the BES islands are not at all familiar with the concept of ‘internet consultation’, let alone that they feel called to participate in it. In addition, the consultation was held at the height of the COVID-19 Pandemic; a moment when entrepreneurs had something else on their mind.
The fact that no one took part apparently did not raise any alarm among any of the ‘bright minds’ involved in the case, in the sense that nobody ever considered the possibility that the ‘zero participation’ was not so much a sign of overwhelming approval for the new arrangement, but more a sign that people might not have realized that something was expected of them. How stupid or how blind can you be?
Even worse is that neither the Ministry of Economic Affairs nor the Chamber have consulted any organization that could have expressed an opinion on the subject. Representatives of the Central Dialogue, the Bonaire Employment Organization and -for instance- the Saba Business Association (SBA), were never heard on the intention of a new tariff system. Was that perhaps because EZK and the Chamber already anticipated that said organizations would be less than thrilled about the tripling of existing rates for exactly the same product, namely being registered with the Chamber?
The communication of the Chamber has also been downright weak. Admittedly: Advertisements have appeared here and there in the media. However, there were only meaningless links to be seen, without an honest overview of the new rates, and the impact that would have on the vast majority of entrepreneurs on the three BES islands.
A person indirectly involved with the matter offered a relatively weak defense: The percentage increase may be large, but in ‘absolute dollar terms’ it is not that bad. An argument that makes little sense. If a loaf of bread at Van den Tweel Supermarket which today sells for 2 dollars and 60 cents, suddenly costs $7.80 tomorrow from one day to the next, that is still not a whole lot of money in absolute terms. The fact that the price for the exact same product increased by threefold overnight, would however have the whole island in an uproar all the same.
Another troubling element is the fact that the Chamber is a monopolist, and the service provided is mandatory. No entrepreneur can start something without being registered with the Chamber of Commerce. Seen that way, the contributing entrepreneurs are very easy prey. You are required to be registered and there are no other providers. Shooting on a sitting duck, in other words.
What is unfortunate about the whole story is that the Chamber of Commerce has made quite a few strides in recent years. For example, the entrepreneurs’ counter was useful during the COVID crisis and the Chamber has been an important discussion partner for the implementation of various support measures. In recent years, the Chamber has also undeniably started to work in a more efficient and more professional way. If we are to believe the Chamber, there will be more good things in the near future, including in the field of automation.
Unfortunately, the problem for both EZK and the Chamber is that the new tariff system is a very tough -if not impossible- thing to sell. With every new scheme, there is a (small) group of people involved that benefits and a (small) group that may hold the shorter end of the stick. But nobody can be convinced of a new scheme in which about 25-30% benefits ever so slightly (in most cases 9 dollars a year), while 65-70% will have to shell out an additional 160 to 320 dollars a year.
Another area of concern is the fact that the Ministry and the Chambers have been little transparent in the process. For example, nobody shared with the most important stakeholders – the entrepreneurs – what the expected additional income per year will be and what it will be used for. Nor has any insight been given into the financial results of recent years. Did the Chamber have a drastic shortfall every year? And is the intended increase absolutely necessary to survive? Are there any other options, or was this the only one?
No, it looks like the Ministry, together with the board of at least the Chamber in Bonaire, carefully and almost slyly plotted the whole matter, in the hope that nobody would notice until it was too late.
Although the new law is now a fait accompli, the uproar has not died down. The officials of EZK and the generally invisible board should be deeply ashamed of their sloppy work, which has destroyed the Chamber’s image overnight. The only thing left for them, if they have even the slightest sense of honor, is to just collectively resign.
The Chamber, aided by EZK, seems to have overlooked an important but very fundamental principle: The Chamber is there for the entrepreneurs and not the other way around. No Chamber of Commerce should never become a self-feeding monster, adjusting rates as it sees fit in order to finance its own (over?)ambitious agenda, without the entrepreneurs themselves having a say in this. If they are allowed to do that, the sky is the limit.