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Addressing Concerns of Customs Officers in Sint Maarten.

duane17082023Dear Editor,
Allow me to pose a straightforward question: Who is telling the truth?
I am writing this letter on behalf of the Customs Officers who are profoundly disheartened by the present circumstances.
Despite Mr. Bernadina’s letter which was published earlier in the media, asserting that I was lying and was never approached or directed by his staff to help compose a letter, it is important to set the record straight. We have resolved to challenge and rectify all the statements made in “The Letter to the Editor” dated August 16th, 2023, by Mr. Bernadina.
It has come to the attention of the Customs Officers that Mr. Bernadina’s letter was subsequently shared on the Facebook page of The Honorable Minister of Justice, indicating alignment between her and Mr. Bernadina. It is worth noting that the letter from the Customs Officers was intended for the Ministry, not Mr. Bernadina, and as such, they feel disrespected by an entity that should be upholding and safeguarding our interests.
As Customs Officers who daily put their lives on the line, the falsehoods propagated by Mr. Bernadina have left them deeply disappointed. In response, they, the Customs officers, will address each point raised by Mr. Bernadina, as follows:
1. Resolving the Alleged Toxic Work Environment: Custom workers currently find themselves in an environment where they face threats from both colleagues and the management team. They have even reported threats from drug gangs to management, yet no action has been taken. Consequently, the sense of security is nonexistent. The abuse of management is taking a toll on their physical and mental well-being. Additionally, certain workers engage in wrongdoing without facing any consequences. It is imperative to clarify that the source of the toxicity is Mr. Bernadina himself. He has a reputation for vindictiveness, often targeting outspoken customs agents to either displace them from their roles or make their work environment unpleasant. While Mr. Bernadina claims to have an open-door policy, staff members are wary of approaching him due to a lack of trust. This sentiment is shared among the staff, and despite frequent discussions, the grievances remain unaddressed.
2. Completion of the Function Book: Employees assert that the Function Book is incomplete. In meetings addressing this topic, conflicting explanations are provided. When staff expressed disagreement with the Function Book and suggested the inclusion of additional positions, the initial response was that it was impossible due to the SG’s reluctance to add functions. Later, it was conveyed that three accountants had informed management that no more functions could be added. Curiously, when pressed for the identity of these accountants, Mr. Bernadina could not provide an answer. It is worth noting that the Minister of Justice was present during one such meeting. The Customs officers eagerly anticipate a presentation by the Justice Department’s lawyer, as promised by ABVO, about the new Function Book. Furthermore, during a general meeting in February, it was acknowledged that there were limited higher functions in the new Function Book. Staff were advised to pursue courses relevant to their functions to enhance competitiveness. Mr. Bernadina’s contradictory statements about the Function Book’s readiness raise questions about its status, and despite Mr. Bernadina's claim that the Function Book is ready, his statement about facilitating a final review within 14 days raises doubt about the truth.
3. Criteria for Team Leader Selection: Mr. Bernadina’s claim that certain individuals have not been officially appointed as Team Leaders within the Customs Department is disputed by the Customs officers. In a February 2023 general meeting, it was outlined that Holland would dispatch two team leaders to provide training and guidance once the team leaders were in place. Presently, two Custom Officers are undergoing training by Dutch team leaders from the Netherlands. The majority believe that these chosen candidates lack the integrity necessary for leadership roles. Concerns about their integrity have raised doubts about their eligibility, especially regarding their clearance for such positions. During a meeting with the Customs officers, Mr. Bernadina indicated that these appointments were made by the ministry, advising other staff members to recognize them as Team Leaders. Additionally, the Ministry's advice to staff members to refer to these individuals as Team Leaders further fuels our skepticism. Furthermore, during the HR Cycle, the two customs officers were introduced as Team Leaders. This prompts the question: “What criteria were employed to select these appointed officers?”
4. Salaries and Compensation: Many Custom officers are grappling with financial constraints stemming from the country’s economic situation, which has a severe impact on their livelihoods. The escalating cost of living renders it increasingly difficult for them to meet their monthly financial obligations. It is baffling that “Aspirant Agenten” are earning a monthly salary of approximately Fl1900,- Antillean guilder (approximately $1100), expecting them to sustain themselves. An illustrative case is that of Custom Officer Richardson, a dedicated officer with over a decade of service, who still receives an “aspirant agent” salary. His poignant letter to the Minister of Justice highlights the plight of officers enduring financial hardships while risking their lives for their country. It is a stark reminder of the disparity between dedication and compensation.
“To the minister of justice,

I, Maclain Richardson, a customs officer at the customs department. It is sad to say and yes, I am starting it as a eulogy because that is how I feel. The justice ministry is making me feel like I am dead to them. It should not have to be like I am in a THIRD WORLD country. I serve and protect my country with pride and dignity and with the highest integrity. It is a disgrace and a shame to see how my country and ministry are treating me. For a decade now I have been patiently and humbly waiting to get my salary fixed. I have been living on almost minimum wage and risking my life every day with my day-to-day task of protecting this country. Ten years working without a “landsbesluit” and with a salary with which I started my customs training. Since that time, I have witnessed several other new colleagues enter the establishment and get their LB or MB, even the acting head of customs got an LB /MB, as early as a week ago a colleague that resigned and came back to work got her LB/MB. My advice to get my LB has been signed for more than a year already and still nothing. I do not know why my situation is being overlooked. But this has taken a toll on my life and the stress is now unbearable.
For the past month, I have had to live, as I said, like I am living in a THIRD WORLD country.
1) I was driving my car and putting water every day in my engine because I cannot afford to buy engine coolant
2) I have not seen my daughter in a month because I did not have gas to visit her and back. The fool that I am saved my gas instead to be able to reach work.
3) I was eating white rice alone for a month.
4) I was drinking water from the tap in a heavenly water bottle, and I kept refilling that same bottle over and over because that is the only bottle I had.
5) I used to come to work and drink water and eat two boiled eggs for breakfast because I could not afford a cup of coffee and a sandwich.
This is not a joke, I lived through this without anyone knowing my full struggles. And keeping my integrity all these years and meanwhile, the government has kept me financially suppressed. No one should live like this because of the negligence of your ministry. I finally decided to speak up because this should never happen to anyone. ENOUGH IS ENOUGH Patiently waiting and relying on promises that have never come to be. I am tired and burned out and have had enough of what I am going through and the way I am living. This has nothing to do with anything political in any manner. But I need to address this for the last time. If I need to let the public know how I am living well, so be it. ENOUGH IS ENOUGH Just informing you that I am going to inform the public about what I am going through. People need to know the reality of how some officers are living and this is just a piece of my story. BECAUSE I HAD ENOUGH”
It is clearly stated by the customs officers that Mr. Bernadina does not speak on their behalf. Remuneration remains a primary concern, and the officers' pleas for change have been ignored.
5. Acquisition of Work Dogs: The loss of a Customs Officer's dog, who during a period of 10 years built a deep bond with its handler, underscores the importance of empathy. Mr. Bernadina's dismissal of the dog's suffering is disrespectful. The situation surrounding the dog's death raises questions, as does the disappearance of funds allocated for new service dogs. This is one of the topics that hit the customs officers hard. The fact that one of the dogs was in safe care for more than 10 years with his dog handler/ family. Being at work daily with your dog partner for more than 10 years forms a bond stronger than a person can imagine. Then for Mr. Bernadina to bluntly without sympathy state in his letter that the dog was suffering because of the negligence of the caretaker, is the utmost form of disrespect for a Customs Officer that is still dealing with the loss of his dog. Not only is it very disrespectful on behalf of Mr. Bernadina to just blame the Dog handler for negligence, but he forgot to mention that he decided to put the dog to sleep when the Customs Officer who had a strong bond with his dog was on vacation. In other words, Mr. Bernadina did not even have the decency to inform the Officer that his dog would be put to sleep or at least wait for the officer to return to work, so he could say goodbye to his dear friend. This discourteous behavior is what is meant by TOXIC behavior stemming from management.
Where is the sympathy and empathy, Mr. Bernadina?
The circumstances of the Dog that perished without proper ventilation in a Custom Car is also very skeptical. As it was brought to Bernadina’s attention by the Customs Officer in charge of the Dog, that the situation in which it occurred was doubtful. Moreover, it has been requested for months by the Customs Officers, who deal with the service dogs for new service dogs. They were informed that the money for the dogs, which was about $20,000 per dog, was available for the dogs and that the dogs were going to be purchased. When Bernadina was asked where the money for the dogs was in a subsequent meeting, he informed the Custom Officers that the money destined for the service dogs had DISAPPEARED. Mr. Bernadina could not explain the reason for his statement and that he would inform the Officers once he investigates where the money is located. “This statement was made in the Ploeg Leider Overleg.”
6. Uniforms: Custom Officers have not received new uniforms in four years. Mr. Bernadina's claim that uniforms are available is incorrect. Instead, officers wear second-hand uniforms or resort to wearing riot gear for practical reasons. The situation has been raised repeatedly with no resolution. Despite the fact Mr. Bernadina still states in his letter: “It is not the case that Customs does not have any uniforms because there are uniforms.” The simple truth is: THE CUSTOM OFFICERS DO NOT HAVE NEW UNIFORMS AND DID NOT RECEIVE ANY NEW “AANVULLENDE” UNIFORMS BUT SECOND-HAND UNIFORMS WITHIN 4 YEARS.
Nevertheless, at no moment in time have the Custom Officers chosen to favor wearing the so-called “riot uniform” for practical reasons. The truth is that they have no option but to wear the riot uniform since many Custom Officers do not have the complete “nette uniform.” This issue has been brought so many times to the MT team. Many Officers are currently working with uniforms with holes and broken shoes that are glued together with ‘Bison Kit’ (glue). Please see the pictures attached at the end of the letter.
Mr. Bernadina is aware of the uniform situation, and it is very disheartening to hear him make these statements, forgetting that he purposely wore broken uniforms to work when he was working on the floor, to make a statement to management that new uniforms are Custom Officers' priority.
7. Training and Specialization: The training received as BOA (Bijzonder Opsporings Ambtenaar) is not favored by many Custom Officers. They seek specialized training to enhance their job knowledge and capabilities. The fact that the BOA only allows the customs officer to be categorized under BOA solely when they are working, is considered extremely dangerous according to the officers. On the contrary, the BAV POL does allow the Custom Officer to have the same privileges after work hours.
8. (Non) Functional Management Team: Many Custom Officers express dissatisfaction with the current management, and Mr. Bernadina's leadership style has resulted in a toxic environment. Officers have raised concerns about preferential treatment and illegal activities going unchecked. In one sentence simply expressed: “We are not happy with the current management.” As mentioned prior in point one, the customs officers are working in a toxic environment that trickles down from the Management Team.
Thus, to answer Bernadina’s question about who is abusing his or her power, the answer is simple: Mr. Bernadina we are talking about YOU! Many custom officers are tired of your vindictive ways, how decisions are taken, the way you speak to your employees, and implement or command orders to do certain things with which they are not in agreement. The Custom Officers do not trust your guidance and persist that your person is not leading the Custom Department in the right direction. For example, Some officers have brought their concerns to you about reinstating Officers back into Customs due to the fact of them being fired for committing illegal acts, but because of their connection to the Ministry, they are placed in immigration after being released from their duties as Custom Officers and then later been reinstated then back into the Customs Department. The blunt display of preference for certain staff members and some Custom Officers is noticeable since they are getting away with certain illegal matters and these matters have many Custom Officers and staff members concerned.
The feeling of integrity is gone in the Customs Department, and it has been notified to ABVO. But up to this day, nothing has been done about the Custom Officers' Grievances.
Custom Officers are working in a situation where trust in the management team is null.
Finally:
9. Lack of Custom Pass: The absence of Custom Passes for officers raises safety concerns when they carry work weapons outside of work hours. The handling of this issue by the management team raises further questions. As stated in the letter from the Customs Officers dated 12 August 2023, the Officers have been bringing to the attention of the MT that they do not have “legitimate bewijzen” in other words Custom Passes, and that this situation brings danger to them when off work.
Nonetheless, after the letter about the grievances of the Customs Department was published, the HR and Management Team called in all Customs Officers without Customs Pass to come and sign for a Custom Pass. Then it was requested for the Customs Officer not to place a date when signing the document. This skeptical situation was brought to the attention of Mr. Bernadina that at that point instructed HR to allow the Custom Officers to place the date on the document when signing. The first Custom Officer to sign for a Pass, signed on August 15th, 2023.
Mr. Bernadina's statements do not reflect the sentiments of the Customs Officers. The Officers note that Mr. Bernadina's response was directed toward a letter meant for The Honorable Minister Anna Richardson, prompting them to question why he chose to respond.
The Custom Officers anticipate a response from the Minister addressing their concerns. As Customs Officers, they refer to their letter to the Minister of Justice and hope for a resolution by August 23, 2023.

Sincerely,
Officers and Staff Members of the Customs Department of Sint Maarten.
Co-Writer of the Letter: Ydellienne Heerenveen a.k.a. Anonymous Writer

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