Chief Executive Officer of the Jamaica Customs Agency (JCA), Velma Ricketts Walker.
Photo: Michael Sloley

The Jamaica Customs Agency (JCA) is employing the use of technology to effectively carry out its mandate, which is focused on trade facilitation, revenue collection and border protection, during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

Chief Executive Officer/Commissioner of the JCA, Velma Ricketts Walker, tells JIS News that several business processes have been fast-tracked to enable the entity to safely and efficiently serve its various stakeholders.

“We would have had them (processes) in our strategic plans before, but… the COVID realities caused us to leap frog and to move very quickly, especially as it relates to our information and communications technology (ICT) advancement,” she notes.

She says that with the need for physical distancing as part of the health protocols, the agency had to put systems in place to prevent persons from coming into the offices but still conduct business.

“We moved from in line to online. So we offer several services to the public, including the express clearance service. Now this is a programme that was incorporated from 2018; however, as a consequence of COVID, we refined the programme,” Mrs. Ricketts Walker points out.

She explains that customs officers were pulled from the preparation of declarations for non-commercial or personal shipments with that task now being undertaken by a broker online.

“We (Jamaicans) tend to import a lot of non-commercial items and so we have a lot of barrels coming in and those types of shipments… cause a crowd at the clearance point, whether it be the terminal, the port, or the warehouses,” she points out.

She notes that because of COVID-19, the agency recognised that this practice could not continue.

“So legally, we are not supposed to be the persons enforcing or writing or creating the declarations for the traders. So what we have done now is to allow a third party to create these declarations… a freight forwarder, a customs broker or another agent for the importer,” she explains.

“That declaration will be submitted electronically to the agency, long in advance, and the clearance process will have started. So by the time the person comes to effect that clearance, it would be smooth sailing for them. So we are encouraging persons to utilise that system,” she adds.

The agency has also introduced online application for persons who want to benefit from the concession afforded to returning residents.

“What we would have done is to ensure that they no longer come to Customs to get their status approved so they can benefit for those incentives. We allow for them to apply online and book their appointment, and the entire process is done seamlessly,” Mrs Ricketts Walker tells JIS News.

Also among the measures implemented is telecommuting and teleworking to allow staff to operate from anywhere, thereby ensuring business continuity, while adhering to physical distancing protocols and other safeguards.

“We would have put in place arrangements to allow for remote work or flexible scheduling so that we minimise, in terms of our own infection prevention protocols, any exposure to the staff,” Mrs Ricketts Walker says.

The staff of the JCA also benefit from training programmes, facilitated by the agency and the World Customs Organization.

“Important to us is how we rotate the staff among the different areas across Jamaica, while taking our own health into consideration. We are having a lot of [experts] speaking to them, using the online platforms and building capacity as we go along,” she notes.

Mrs Ricketts Walker says that workers are also engaged on various issues, including mental health.

“Now, where staff may be affected by COVID-19, we would have ensured that they get the necessary counselling, not only the individual staff who is affected but the team that is associated with that staff,” she points out.

She tells JIS News that as the CEO, “I have my own check-in with the team, where I speak to them to just find out how are you doing and remind them that I too am very grateful and appreciative of the job that they do”.

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