Representatives of local companies pose with BTP board members following the press conference on Monday. (Robert Luckock photos)
MARIGOT--Bâtiment Travaux Publique (BTP), the main public works association on the French side, has warned that local St. Martin contractors and companies are in danger of going out of business and disappearing altogether unless they can obtain sufficient work and fair competition in the bidding processes for contracts.
BTP, which has been re-structured recently, raised the alarm at a press conference on Monday on a situation that has been going downhill since Hurricane Irma and was then made worse by the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic, it said.
Those speaking from the BTP board included President Franck Fleming, Treasurer Theophile Kelly, Assistant Treasurer Aurélien Lewis, Secretary Emeric Baray, Assistant Secretary Franck Viotty, Technical Adviser Jean-Paul Fischer and member Rigobert Benjamin.
BTP says local companies fully deserve to play their part in the economy and development of the territory. BTP’s objective is to assure that capacity and professional resources are deployed in the public and private sectors and requests a “constructive exchange” with the Collectivité to air their complaints.
“We want all the decision-makers and main institutions, including Collectivité, SEMSAMAR, Préfecture and private institutions, to be aware that since Hurricane Irma, local companies have been suffering,” stated Lewis. “Action must be taken by the decision-makers to ensure local companies, medium- and small-size companies, get their fair share of work, otherwise they will just disappear.”
Baray insisted there are many competent local companies on the French side and called for the markets to be “adapted” to the local context so the bigger overseas companies are not always favoured. In particular, they want the “lotissement” (trades such as carpentry, plumbing, masonry, electricity, etc.) to be protected for the local market.
Benjamin said local contractors also have to contend with their invoices not being settled on time; sometimes payment is delayed for up to two years. Benjamin also wants more focus put on training young St. Martiners in the trades.
“We need plumbers, carpenters and other tradesmen, but they are hard to find on the island,” he said.
Viotty drew attention to the fact that salvage company Koole was requisitioned by the Collectivité to assist in the Sargassum removal on the basis it had the right equipment for the job. Viotty argued that local companies already have the same machines and proceeded to show photos of equipment used to clean out ravines, etc.
“Were we forgotten, was it privilege or was it a political decision? I don’t know,” Viotty questioned on the Collectivité decision to hire Koole. “But I know there are local companies capable of doing the work. We object to the exclusion. We are competent, we hire locally and pay our taxes. We are asking the government to prepare the biddings so that every local company that is interested can put in their bid and try to be selected.
“But we regret most of the time the big companies that get the big jobs belong to a parent group based in Europe. At the end of the day the job never generates benefit, so they don’t pay taxes or just pay the minimum. By contrast we contribute socially and economically because we buy from local suppliers.”
Benjamin pointed out that local suppliers such as Orlèans Hardware, which has been in business in French Quarter for decades, will be unable to survive because whenever big companies come in, they bring their own materials.
Lewis explained that when a major job is presented as a “big package”, local companies do not find themselves qualified. “The brief will say the company has to be making 40 million euros per year. What local company makes that? So, this is how local companies get eliminated from the start. The tendering concept favours the big multi-national companies and not the local companies.
“This is what we are faced with. Unfortunately, it’s easier for the Collectivité to deal with big international companies to the detriment of local companies.”
Fischer said local companies have lost 60% of their potential business (chiffres d’affaires) since 2017.
BTP represents some 40 local companies on the French side of St. Maarten/St. Martin.