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GOJ promises new customs law, highlights benefits of contactless processing through agency

The Government of Jamaica is hoping to release in early 2024 new legislation accompanied by regulations for Jamaica Customs “in one single volume”, says Minister of Finance and the Public Service Nigel Clarke.

Speaking at the customs seminar hosted annually by the Jamaica Chamber of Commerce, Clarke said the update of the near 80-year-old statute is one of several steps being taken to improve services at the Jamaica Customs Agency, among them the introduction of a canine division, body cameras, contactless processing for non-commercial imports, single-window digital document processing, and digital immigration processing.

The new Customs Bill has already been tabled in Parliament, with expectations that the debate on the law should begin before year end.

“We have also painstakingly sought to completely overhaul customs procedures, which will make them far more efficient and effective, improving security and productivity by lowering the time,” Clarke said.

The revision of the Customs Act of 1944 is meant to address bottlenecks that impede the efficiency and predictability of the processing of border transactions.

“By dealing with high traffic activities and dealing with efficiency, the customs operations overall will be more efficient,” Clarke noted.

“Digital interface means that businesses located far from the port in Westmoreland, St Elizabeth, Portland, etc, have the opportunity for a radically improved efficiency. You can stay in your bedroom and fill out documents for the importation of goods. We have made substantial progress, with more to come,” he said.

Regarding the changes to immigration, the old way was for persons to manually fill out declaration forms.

But that has now changed.

“In September, the ‘online only’ format was introduced and became mandatory. The objective, again, is to increase efficiency, improve time and security. Customs officials are also able to make much more use of information. By making it electronic, it speeds up entry at ports or airports,” the finance minister noted.

In highlighting the importance of the port to economic activity, Clarke cited trade statistics in 2022 when Jamaica imported US$7.7 billion worth of merchandise “representing 40 per cent of GDP”.

“When that is added to exports, trade in total in visible and invisible goods totals 80 per cent of GDP. By comparison, trade for many countries in Europe, the Far East and US represents significantly lower ratios in terms of GDP quotient. For the US, it is between 20 and 25 per cent,” he said.

The changes at Customs, he added, were vital to help fuel the economy.

“March 2022 economic output was the highest in 15 years. We have also had economic recovery with the unemployment rate at a record low. There are few countries, with exception of Guyana, which can say they have done this without higher debt levels,” said Clarke.

“The bad news is that there are a lot of inefficiencies [but] there is an upside if we can, over time, implement laws and regs” to drive efficiencies, he added.

Jamaica Customs Agency’s Deputy CEO and Deputy Commissioner of Customs, Selena Clarke-Graham, said that modernisation has resulted in a more efficient use of staff who, in the past, had to journey to warehouses to execute the work of the agency.

“Today, importers and operators of warehouses can now pay duties and remove goods without any sort of Customs intervention,” said Clarke-Graham.

Of the 130 “economic operators”, that is, warehouse owners and traders, only 10 per cent of them require interface with Customs agents. The ASYCUDA online platform, she said, has also been revolutionary in this regard.

She added, however, that Customs maintains significant control under the new system through periodic visits to ensure that operators are compliant.

“Now we are in a paperless environment and there is real time communication with our customers and agents. You no longer have to visit Customs and interact with us. By virtue of the contactless environment, our offices have become very fast. You can get information at the snap of a finger and new methods of payment, all coming from ASYCUDA,” the customs official said.

The Jamaica single window for trade, which allows submission of documents online, is now utilised by more than 800 traders. And 10 border regulatory agencies were onboarded.

Additionally, express cargo clearance was implemented in 2020, with the process divested to freight forwarders.

With body cams, said Clarke-Graham, the inspection process has become quicker and safer, with increased efficiency in workflow and cargo flow. She noted that nearly 400,000 declarations have been divested to agencies and freight forwarders, with speedier processing being the result.

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