Posted September 4th
Susan & I were away from Fiji for one year due to medical reasons. We’re happy to announce that we’re now back though, & will have a lot to share in the coming months as we actively reach out to bring library books to village schools damaged by Cyclone Winston!
To start off with, here is the story of collecting 26 large boxes of books, sent from Townsville, Australia by our good friends, John & Heather! As you may remember from previous posts, this lovely couple stayed with us 2 years ago & came on one of our primary school book distributions. Seeing the need for educational materials in village schools, & the great appreciation shown by both students & teachers, they decided to start collecting books from primary schools in the Townsville area. They had a number of obstacles to overcome along the way, but were able to surmount them & get the books sent down to Melbourne, where O’Brien Customs & Forwarding kindly donated the onward shipping to Fiji, as they have done several times in the past.
Here’s the story of the shipment’s arrival, as related to John & Heather:
On August 24th we went to Pacific Agencies bright & early and soon found out that they were not very helpful as they asked us to pay FJD200 — for unloading & transporting the shipment 1 km from the port to their storage warehouse, plus documentation & VAT. We showed them our voluntary work & explained that up until now, every freight company has always waived these charges as it’s a charity project & the books are for free distribution to village schools damaged by Cyclone Winston. We explained that we can’t really do charity work in Fiji unless local companies get behind us & help facilitate etc etc. They were remarkably hard-hearted though & only reduced the amount to FJD165. Surprising, as helping Cyclone Winston victims usually generates a lot of sympathy.
Next came Customs. As expected, they insisted that they would have to conduct an evaluation & that we would have to pay duty on all the books. We explained that we’re a registered charity & that the books are for poor village schools etc etc, so they said we’ll need to get a letter of exemption from Firca head office: that’s Fiji Inland Revenue & Customs Authority, located completely on the other side of Suva.
Once there we were told that we’ll need to get a letter from the Ministry of Education, authorizing the project & making an official request for help. They also said I’ll need clearance from the Ministry of Finance!! We know from experience that this is not true: all we needed was someone senior enough to sign an exemption on the shipping waybill. Finally, to make a long story short, I found a higher level manager & he signed the document!! Great!
This process took the whole day though, so we went back to Pacific Agencies the next morning to collect the boxes. However, the Customs people there couldn’t believe that the exemption was genuine or couldn’t seem to accept it. We asked them to phone & verify, & eventually the problem seemed to be resolved. There were more forms to fill out & documents to photocopy, as well as a physical inspection of 5 of the boxes. I was also told I’d need to clear BioSecurity, but that the person responsible was out of the office & wouldn’t be back for another 3 hours!
After I’d filled out all their forms & photocopied all our supporting documents, Customs changed their minds & said that they’d looked again at the rules & that we would definitely need to pay duty on all the books!! They’d been in touch with Firca head office & someone there decided that charity books don’t come under the exemption guidelines!! They passed the phone so that the message could be spelled out to us personally…..we didn’t want to listen to all that so told them we’re coming over to discuss it again.
So another trip over to Firca on the other side of town!!! We again met with various officials & we all looked together at code 215 which states that items for the education of disadvantaged children in Fiji can be tax-exempted. The problem is that in other parts of the Firca handbook, it says that books are not tax-exempt. Finally, we were able to persuade them that books definitely help with the education of disadvantaged children, so therefore an exemption could be made, as we have done on numerous other occasions. It’s a great pity that Firca’s tax guide is rather ambiguous on this point, with the final decision being left up to the individual. Nobody wants to get in trouble for letting something through the net that should have been taxed, so it’s very hard to get anyone to sign the exemption, even though they can clearly see that it’s a good cause….
Back to Pacific Agencies again, where the Customs agent could hardly believe that I got her decision overturned! She was back on the phone, seeking clarification & still said that I couldn’t take the boxes until the Firca head office computer & her computer had ‘linked’ (?). So another half hour for BioSecurity clearance (only FJD5) & computer linking & finally I could take the books after 2 whole days of running around!
I managed to ask Vanguard, a sister-company of Pacific Agencies, to donate transport of the boxes to our house, but they said they could only do it with their (small) company car & maybe not until tomorrow; also that probably all the boxes wouldn’t fit in. I therefore put 11 boxes in a taxi (much cheaper than hiring a truck) & brought them back to our centre…..
To be continued