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Customs Department in deep crisis.

Dear Editor,

The Ministry of Justice is currently a hot item within our community since police officers have voiced their concerns about issues regarding their salaries and agreements that the unions had with the Justice minister. But what is lesser known in the community is the fact that there are other departments within the Justice apparatus that suffer far worse than the police and one of them is the Customs Department.
This department (often mistaken for Coastguard) is the neglected stepchild of Justice and there are different reasons for that.
For a very long time the Customs Department was seen as a not-so-important department on the island since Sint Maarten is a country where you don't have to pay import duty, and so Customs officers were mostly busy with patrols or checking passengers at the airport and the marinas. But with the passing of Hurricane Irma Customs became a major player when country Sint Maarten asked The Netherlands for support and the Dutch demanded that Sint Maarten tightened its border security.
For the average person on the street Customs may not look as important as the Police but it is important to realize that this department is in place to prevent things like illegal drugs, illegal firearms, medication, dangerous goods, and counterfeit items from entering our country. Anything that can harm our public health and safety and crosses our borders is of interest to Customs. And that's why it is a crying shame when you see how undervalued this group of Justice workers is.
While a cadet at the Police or Immigration department takes home 4200 guilders ($2.333) a month, a full-blown Customs officer who is already permanent and working for 5 years is making only 2746 guilders ($1525) before tax.
A senior Customs officer with 10 years of service makes only 3540 guilders ($1966)!

How is this even possible? We're talking about a group of government workers that have the very risky task of catching drugs and weapons among other things. You can't put a price tag on human life but if people are putting their lives on the line to protect their homes and country they should not be struggling financially.
But a bad salary is not the only problem within the Customs department. The department also suffers from a lack of perspective within. There are hardly any possibilities in the department to grow to higher functions. Simply because there are no internal courses for workers to rise to higher ranks and the number of functions like dog-handler, detective, analyst, or team leader is very limited. This in combination with the aforementioned bad salaries is a recipe for disaster. Evidently, in the past 48 months, no less than 16 Customs officers have left the department in search of better perspectives. The majority (98%)of those who left are young people who were recruited in previous years. 12 cadets joined the department in 2019 and of that group, only 6 remain. Another group of 12 was recruited in 2021 and a year later 8 of them left because they realized that they would struggle financially and also hit a dead end in the department. As things stand at the moment, everybody in the Customs Department has the rank of kommies, even those who are serving longer than 25 years.
But the problems don't stop there.

Poor leadership is another thing that cripples the Customs organization on the inside.
For years the organization was led by a man who didn't seem to care about the department. He was and still is the only person in Customs Sint Maarten with the rank of hoofd-verificateur. By rights, he is the only person in Customs that is qualified to be head of the department. But because of personal issues, he was replaced by somebody else.
But even the interim head that is currently in place seems to lack the skills to take the department to a higher level. Many officers within the department feel like the current head is more concerned with securing his position as head of Customs and placing two favorite persons in the position of team leader, rather than improving the organization as a whole. On more than one occasion he has been accused of handpicking candidates for certain positions instead of giving equal chances to everybody. Ironically, neither he nor the two people he wants as team leaders have the qualifications to take those positions. The general feeling among the workers is that management doesn't fight hard enough to get things done for the department and so Customs always becomes the forgotten one in Justice when the cake is being shared. Even when 16(!) people left the department in a short period management never felt the need to call a meeting with the officers to find out why so many people are leaving and how to keep the remaining ones happy.
The interim head and his management team have also been accused of doing a very bad job when proposals had to be made to the minister for the new function book.

Meanwhile, the people on the work floor grow more and more frustrated. Because with every Customs officer that walks out of the door, the workload on those who stay behind becomes bigger. This creates a vicious circle that puts more pressure on the workers and pushes people to exit. The minister wants Customs to focus on many different things but the department simply doesn't have enough personnel. As we speak Customs has only 27 officers including the head of the department. Imagine all the risks for you and your family and the many responsibilities that you have at work on top of a poor salary. While other departments in Justice that do far less get much better pay. As we speak Customs officers are contemplating the possibility of going on strike. This would mean that containers with much-needed food for the island, store merchandise, and personal items would become stranded. And that could seriously hamper our small economy. The officers believe that the Customs organization has been silent for too long and now is the time to act. The Customs officers want their salaries, function book, and rechtspositie fixed and also want the government to appoint qualified people to run the department, even if it means that people must be brought in from abroad.
Customs is in a deep crisis and if the government of Sint Maarten takes this with a grain of salt the consequences will be far-reaching.


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