Rein in the tax-dodgers

By Raffique Shah
March 18, 2024

Raffique ShahNot long ago, after a few years of trying to recover a relatively small sum of pension that government owed me, I concluded that the public service will never change in its attitude towards work and servicing the population that pays them.

Worse, I think I realised then there are people in the public service who use their positions against citizens who are entitled to hold political allegiance, but mostly citizens could not be bothered with such trivial distractions.

I should add that in the course of that exercise, I encountered some senior public servants who were extremely helpful, as were some other officials who likewise lent not only a helping hand but followed through to the end. And, I cried for the death of the Revenue Authority. Dead before it was born.

You see, unlike many fortunate people—professionals, engineers, etc—who work hard and are fairly well recompensed, in my life I never worked for any business or institution that allowed me to enjoy “big backpays”. Also, while I feel I have been treated fairly well by my employers, I thought younger people I knew were better compensated. Then again, they studied hard as they pursued higher education, which I did not have. Although I feel no less competent and certainly no less knowledgeable than many of those with higher qualifications and salaries. But I digress.

I am really on to, I might add into, the demise of the Revenue Authority which could have put us, employers and employees, better placed to capture fairer shares of the national revenue, if it worked the way it was meant to. I heard one minister—I do not now recall who—say the country could have realised at least TT$11 billion more per year, and that’s no trifling sum, if everyone paid his fair share of taxes.

I have argued for decades that if we all pay our fair share of taxes on, say, income, profits, duties on goods imported, etc, surely we may be in a position to pay lower taxes, hence have more disposable income.

In fact, I saw the Board of Inland Revenue as being very efficient in collecting income taxes, but this was mainly from a captive albeit significant number of low- to middle-income employees in the State and private sectors.

Such people always felt the brunt of the taxman’s sharp axe when employers religiously took and continue to take the Government’s PAYE out of their salaries before it hits their accounts. A huge chunk of salary gone before you even saw it.

Now, tell me, why is there not a similar system in place for entrepreneurs and sole traders such as hairstylists, contractors, doctors, lawyers, and the list goes on? It’s almost an inexhaustible list. Capturing data and dollars on such persons should pose no problem for the BIR or the Revenue Authority that was touted as the State entity that can level the collection of taxes playfield.

As I understand it, the Revenue Authority would rely on trained tax collectors who will use modern technology to capture and verify information, especially from those who boldly demand services and other largesse from government all the while not paying a dollar in taxes.

I feel certain such dodgers, who likely far outnumber the compliant, seem to get a thrill from evading the taxman. I started this column by barely touching a bigger story on how tax departments and officials hound down the poor citizens while the wealthy in many cases simply pay nothing and get away.

Factor in corruption and the equation goes wild. The lack of an effective and efficient tax collection system has made millionaires out of artful tax-dodgers. Many of them owning multiple properties, vehicles, hefty bank accounts and passports with few spaces left for stamping. I thought that by now with all the socio-economic problems we face, this Authority would have gotten off to a flying start because, face it, which government would be against collecting taxes? Well, unless you’re in the opposition.

This brings us to a critical juncture where older people, pensioners, who must work because their pensions are so piddling, are now being forced to pay taxes on any small sum they receive in monies owed to them. Imagine that.

I have paid taxes all my working life and as a pensioner of close to 80 years, I still pay certain taxes. I resent that, as I am sure many other pensioners do. Surely bright minds in the BIR and those agencies tasked with collecting taxes can find a way to recoup what is owed to the government and this country.

Because one day, they too will get old and have to retire, and from this standpoint, the future looks bleak, for present and future geezers.

Do something now.

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