A week of news and views from the Algarve...
Inspectors from the tax authority, social security department and the trading safety authority, ASAE, this year will be raiding shops, restaurants and premises rented to tourists as part of the National Plan for Tax and Customs Inspection.
This is a good thing and those cutting corners on safety, registration and employment laws can expect to be fined heavily.
There is a suspicion that this annual announcement by the Tax Authority is not carried through with the rigour expressed or intended. Certainly, ASAE in the past has stated that its teams have better things to do than check up on properties being used for short-term rental to tourists.
By concentrating on busy summertime bars and restaurants, with press releases covering successes, this annual activity will at least be seen to be carried out.
But what of the tens of thousands of illegal immigrants openly working in agriculture, picking fruit for well below the minimum wage?
The main problem area is the Alentejo where, for example, in the town of São Teotónio, near Odemira, there are an estimated 4,000 illegal workers in a town of 6,500 inhabitants.
Plenty of red fruit greenhouses have been set up in the Algarve in the past few years due to the massive grants available to get agriculture working again but the economics that have created an export boom have largely relied on illegal immigrants earning ‘starvation wages.’
Before getting too upset about the labour conditions, these workers knowingly have come here as illegal immigrants and therefore may expect poor working conditions with no rights.
The underlying problem is the government which, by doing as little as possible to stop farms taking on this illegal labour, has encouraged the flow of immigrants as their work enables Portugal’s agricultural exports to thrive.
This is a parallel to the short-term tourist accommodation market where, after a decade of poorly thought out legislation, only around 20% of property owners are following the law and have the required Alojamento Local licences. The government knows that this illegal market is booming to the overall benefit of the economy.
By encouraging illegality, which is exactly what is happening in both these markets, the State is punishing those who are operating legally and who are shouldering the burden of paying at least the minimum wage, social security contributions and holiday pay.
The once-famous Autódromo do Estoril, ultimately is owned by the taxpayer through the State holding company Parpública. Estoril lost its Formula 1 status in 1996 but still operates as a taxpayer-funded circuit.
Parpública appointed two managers whose ideal of public service was more along the lines of self-service.
Between 2007 and 2012, Domingos Piedade, the chairman of the board of directors, and manager Isabel Brazão decided that they weren’t being paid nearly enough so used their company credit cards for tens of thousands of euros of personal expenditure as well as awarding themselves retrospective salary increases which they knew would be knocked back by the tax authority.
As one readers asks, “Is there anybody in this country that doesn't steal money?” and it continues to sadden many responsible and honest citizens that people in public service steal public money and that it takes so long before whistleblowers or auditors reveal such thefts.
Portugal’s vehicle testing centre owners are not best pleased that they collectively have spent around €30 million installing new equipment to test motorbikes and that the government has failed to finalise the law that requires bikes of 250cc or more to undergo an annual test.
While this row goes on, and while the Ministry continues to dodge the matter, many have spotted that even after the new law is enacted, this will leave around 80,000 motorbikes and mopeds being driven on Portugal’s roads of under 250cc, many of which are in poor shape and certainly unsafe in an emergency.
In the UK, as one northern European example, an annual bike MOT test must be done on all motorcycles, mopeds and scooters over three years old, to the benefit and safety of all road users.
Portugal already has a poor level of road safety so having all bikes and mopeds tested annually would seem to be an easy way to have the many unsafe vehicles repaired or scrapped.
The continuing muddle over the proposed new bridge to Faro Island defies polite description.
The all too frequent announcements that tender documents are just about to be issued have become tedious and no one yet is clear what configuration the bridge will be, if it is ever built.
Faro Mayor, U-turn Bacalhau, said in May 2014 that the tender document for the bridge is "ready and should be released within one to two months,” then in September 2016 that “a solution is at hand” then last week, that the long-overdue tender will be launched, but not until after the April 1st council meeting where the plan might be rejected.
Running in parallel to this shameful lack of willpower is an environmental complaint to Brussels by Quercus which points out that the planned bridge encroaches into various areas of specially protected land in a Site of Community Importance within the Ria Formosa area.
This is a new bridge to replace one that already exists, yet it seems beyond the wit of man to organise the building of a new structure before the current one collapses under the weight of summer traffic.
News that tourist offices are being renovated in the lower Alentejo triggered readers’ comments that it’s all very well doing up these buildings, but many members of staff need further training in the dark art of customer service or the whole exercise will have been a waste of time.
While not the case in all Alentejo and Algarve tourist offices, with Faro’s outpost shining as a beacon of excellence, it safely can be stated that many offices indeed seem to be lacking staff with the, ahem, ‘necessary skill set.’
This is easy enough to overcome and the regional tourist boards, should they ever pause long enough from moaning about funding issues, need to ensure that their front-line tourist offices all are operating at 100% efficiency and that right people are in the right jobs, that the tourist information centres are open throughout the day and have the materials necessary to help staff do their jobs in guiding and informing tourists.
Two councils that are not dithering are Vila do Bispo and Aljezur. Neither of these rural council are well funded but have sourced EU funding for a joint project to establish walking and cycling routes through the municipalities which, it must be said, are blessed with some of the most delightful countryside in the region.
The ‘Ecovia and Ciclovias do Litoral’ project has €2.1 million in funding lined up from the European Regional Development Fund towards a total budget of €3 million.
I have not seen the funding proposal but hopefully there is a section on the long-term management of these new trails and how this is funded.
This issue was the problem area for the Via Algarviana walking route. When the European grant ran out, many councils were unwilling to fund the modest costs of annual route maintenance carried out by Almargem.
The Vila do Bispo and Aljezur project looks good on paper and hopefully the two councils can get the project established to help develop their countryside regions for ‘nature tourism.’
Still out west, this time in Bensafrim, Lagos, plans for a large solar power plant have reached the public consultation stage
The Secretary of State for Energy, Jorge Seguro Sanches, recently stated government policy, “renewables have reached maturity and are capable of standing alone without requiring consumers to pay an extra cost."
The policy is to “promote the decentralised production of renewable energy, without the need for subsidies, either for self-consumption or for sale to the network at market prices."
Good news indeed: private investment in efficient solar power plants producing clean energy to push Portugal towards achieving its renewable energy goals.
On reading the very small print of the Bensafrim investment proposal, submitted by Hyperion, the following stuck out “the enterprise will be economically viable with subsidised rates for the sale of energy to the grid."
Hmmm... this is not government policy at all. Maybe the owner of Hyperion, João Talone, with his links to government, has been afforded special treatment that will cost the taxpayer up to €100 million over the next 20 years at the Bensafrim plant.
Talone is a former Chief Executive of EDP, after all, and headed a government special commission as well as rewriting government energy policy and serving as a board member of Millennium BCP... you get the picture - this is no run-of-the-mill businessman and the deal about to be signed is no ordinary deal and well may cost the taxpayer millions despite government policy that renewable energy subsidies are a thing of the past.
Caixa Geral de Depósitos, the taxpayer-owned bank, wants more of our money in a multi-billion euro recapitalisation but until the Minister of Finance, the Bank of Portugal and the Stock Market Regulator stop their silliness in concealing the full extent of Caixa Geral’s sordid past, the recapitalisation should not go ahead.
There is a committee of inquiry into Caixa Geral’s past and the MPs making up this committee want to know which companies received large loans that they appear unable to repay, what were the terms and conditions of these loans and what collateral was offered.
Until the requested files are handed over and the legal battle to keep everything secret is dropped, the public may surmise that Caixa Geral was run as a club to fund those in and close to government, that the bank gave loans to businessmen as long as the bank’s administrator Armando Vara got a kickback, and that the bank lent money to wholly unsuitable companies and individuals who were at a high risk of defaulting.
The State talks of its 'transparency' yet seeks to hide the truth. As the 2012, €1.2 billion refinancing appears to have had no effect at all on the bank’s performance, and after massive 2016 loan write-offs, the last thing the taxpayer needs is to continue to fund a banking business where secrecy and corruption have been the bank's modus operandi for years.
The Algarve’s mayors’ group, AMAL, has issued a last minute condemnation of the Environment Ministry’s campaign to rid much of the Ria Formosa islands of long-established properties.
Better late than never and at least this is a concerted effort as previously certain of the mayors involved have been noted for saying one thing and doing another.
The company used by the ministry to carry out its dirty work, Polis Litoral Ria Formosa, has been given another year in which to continue ruining islander’s lives and, now that possession orders have been issued and numbers spray-painted on those properties chosen for demolition, the mayors want to know what Polis will be doing with its time, apart from being wantonly destructive.
The Minister of the Environment, João Matos Fernandes, already facing demands for his resignation over his pro-oil stance, lied to the islanders when he said to parliament that each house would be dealt with on a ‘case by case basis’ and has not bothered to go through any consultation process.
AMAL’s stated that explanations urgently are needed "as a feeling of uncertainty has settled among the populations living on the barrier islands.”
This must be the understatement of the decade as many of the mayors know first-hand the desperate plight of these people whose only crime has been one of location and who have been relentlessly harassed, belittled and bullied.
Portugal’s President has not bothered to reply to an appeal for help from the islanders and the fear is that they indeed will end up standing in front of the diggers, as they have promised.
It seems that normally cooperative and friendly people lose all sense of proportion when working for the State. This conflict would be so easy to sort out if only people would sit down and discuss things like grown-ups.
Someone who certainly does want to sit down and discuss issues is the British Ambassador to Portugal, Kirsty Hayes, who will be visiting Portimão and Albufeira on Tuesday, 21 March, to talk about Brexit and ‘the possible implications for British residents.’
These sessions are appreciated and are free to attend but you need to book a place, click on this link for registration details:
Another ‘do’ coming up is the Portuguese Chamber Algarve’s 'Spring Networking Lunch' on March 24, at which you can listen to aviation expert Gavin Eccles who currently advises the Board of Turismo de Portugal on aviation development as well as working on numerous projects with ANA Airports Portugal on opening international air routes to the country.
This is at the rather fun-sounding ‘Wild Fire Smokehouse & Grill’ at Vila Sol, Quarteira. Click below for details:
Finally, an update on the Sócrates corruption case: the Attorney General said on Friday that she will extend Operation Marquês and "reassess progress in April."
This is the fifth time that this complex investigation has been extended, to the despair of Sócrates’ legal team which has pledged to use all legal means to challenge the extension.
Prosecutors are waiting for replies to letters rogatory sent to Switzerland and Angola before they present their case and formal charges are made.
We will just have to wait, but it will be worth it...
Until next week
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