Headline — 01 February 2013 — by Miriam Longsworth
3,000 demonstrators “send message” to Barrow and Faber

Teachers and public officers protest denial of raise-a-pay

For those who held their breath wondering about the outcome, the teachers and public service workers successfully pulled off their peaceful demonstration and rally on the steps of the National Assembly Building on Tuesday, January 29, 2013. The crowd of about 3,000 teachers and their supporters demonstrated through the streets of Belmopan and around the National Assembly building singing songs, carrying placards, and chanting, all in their determination to convince the government to grant them a salary adjustment.

The crowd shouted statements such as “Mr. Prime Minister, with no apologies, just adjust the salaries,” “Minister Faber, remember when you were a teacher,” “Cost of living is killing us” and “Who is emptying the pie pan? Not I. My salary is not that high.”

After the crowd marched around the National Assembly once, they proceeded to the steps of the building where they began a ceremony in which several members and affiliates of the unions spoke on behalf of their colleagues on the matters at hand. Though the word choices, tones and speaking styles of the speakers were different, all the speeches had one message in common — the teachers and public service workers want their salary adjustment, and they “want it now!”

Teachers and public service workers from all over the country were present at the demonstration. They were passionate as they marched, sang and chanted in solidarity. Belize National Teachers’ Union President Stann Creek Branch Nadia Caliz said she believes that the turnout was great. Caliz said that from Dangriga alone, there were 512 teachers who shared eight buses.

“I know when we looked at our numbers on Friday, we had about 3,000 teachers signed up to come out here today and so when I look around I can’t say our estimation was wrong at all,” she said.

Past BNTU general secretary George Frazer was also in attendance at the march and rally. Frazer may be retired, but his passion is still with the union.

“You can never be retired from fighting for truth and justice,” he said. “This is a cause that I have given more than half of my life and this is a natural revolution of the process. We are here to send a message to the politicians, red and blue, that we will not tolerate any kind of disrespect, because for the most part it is disrespect. We are showing them where millions of dollars are wasted. Every day we are showing them and suggesting areas where they can collect millions.”

Frazer, who is also a part of the negotiating team, said that they suggest that the government can collect about $30-35 million from GST. He added that the size of the cabinet can be cut down because all of the ministers are not needed.

“Look at the size of the cabinet; we don’t need so much ministers. Each of them cost us at least $100,000 or more a year and there are many other areas where government can collect,” he said. “What we are trying to show them is that the money is there if they have the political will. But apparently some of them want to continue to live like little gods and make us pay for their lifestyle,” he commented.

Frazer said that the protest is the biggest the country has seen in years. Frazer also had a message of advice to the Minister of Education, Patrick Faber.

“My advice would be, Minister Patrick, get off of your high horse and your arrogance, and listen to the people,” he said. “He is gonna tell us that we won’t talk nothing about any raise. What kind of arrogance is that, Patrick? You might be book wise, but penny and common sense foolish.”

Frazer said the salary of the teachers is important because teachers retire every year and their pension is based on their salary.

Association of Public Service Senior Managers president Jose Castellanos said that he was confident that they would get the mass support for the demonstration. Castellanos, like the other protestors, believes that the government can afford to give them a salary increase. He said that he has done his research and it is evident that the government’s figures do not add up.

“I am a man of numbers. I understand numbers, I analyze numbers, I have been analyzing numbers for the past 25 years so when I look at the numbers they don’t add up,” he said. “I think they can afford an adjustment; the question is the quantum. There we can debate it, but there’s no question in my mind that they can afford a salary adjustment. The only question is the quantum.”

Castellanos said that the least that his union would accept is dependent on the affordability and sustainability of the increase.

“If they can show that they cannot afford it or they cannot sustain it, then we are prepared to look at it, but we’re not inflexible; we’ve always been flexible in that area,” he said. “The inflexibility has come from the other side in terms of not willing to consider any raise at all.”

Castellanos said that apart from the salary, the other issue they have with the government is that of contract officers and transparency of governance. He said he is not sure what the exact number of contract officers is, but he knows that the government spends anywhere from $60-$100,000 a year on each contract worker, and that excludes benefits and gratuities.

As the march went through the streets of Belmopan, Belmopan Mayor Simeon Lopez came out with his Belizean flag showing his patriotic solidarity with the teachers. Lopez is also a former teacher.

“Once a teacher, always a teacher,” he said. “Well I support the idea that there must be a negotiation and they should come to the table and let us negotiate. Let’s not just give up or just say that it’s done, that there is nothing we can do about it. Let’s continue the negotiations; there must be some agreement that could be met.”

Dalia Sho from Pueblo Viejo, Toledo, said that as a member of the BNTU her duty was to be out on Tuesday to stand in solidarity with her colleagues.

“Being a teacher is a profession for all, so I believe that when we stand as united, we will be heard,” she said.

BNTU president Luke Palacio said that he was more than satisfied with the turnout and support for the demonstration, as it was more than he had anticipated.

“We are very much impressed, overwhelmed, satisfied, can’t describe it,” he said. “Our people are out here in the numbers, more than we expected and it is just sending a single message that we are serious about what we are doing. Our teachers are feeling the pinch, public officers are feeling the pinch, and therefore all we are asking the government to do, is to do the right thing — honor our request, let us negotiate. Let us agree on a salary adjustment for all our public officers because they deserve it.”

Palacio said that he believed there were nearly 3,000 persons present at the demonstration.

Public Service Union president Marvin Blades shared the sentiments of his fellow union members: he was well pleased with the supportive crowd on Tuesday.

“We feel good that we have a good turnout today,” he said. “It shows that the membership of the three unions is definitely with us and they see the plight that we are facing when we go to the negotiating table. And they feel it in their pockets when they go to the stores.”

Blades said that his message to those who did not attend is that they too are feeling “the pinch” and they need to stand up for themselves as well.

“It’s time that you wake up and look around and see. Do you want to stand up on the wayside and suffer in silence, or do you want to do something about it?” he said.

Hortense Humes, councilor on the Council of Management for the PSU, said that she is passionate about their right to a salary adjustment. According to Humes, the number of PSU supporters could have been larger if protocol allowed it.

“It is our salary adjustment, or you can say it’s a salary increase because as you can see from my sign here the cost of living is very high, that’s why I’m out here,” she said. “Our public officers could be out here but because it’s a peaceful demonstration we go through different procedures to get here.”

Humes explained that industrial action was responsible for the limited number of public officers present at the rally. She said that depending on where you worked you were allowed time off from work to attend. Humes said she works in the central service and was able to make arrangements to be at the rally. The absence of the public service workers who were at the rally was not an interruption to the daily operations of their respective departments.

Not only teachers and public officers made it from the Deep South, but also other persons who shared the same concerns, including People’s National Party (PNP) members who travelled from the Toledo District.

“We have to show our support for the unions. We believe that the money is there to pay teachers,” said Wil Maheia, leader of the PNP. “The government needs to do a better job at their budget because money is there to pay the teachers. And the teachers are basically building the foundation of the nation through the education system, so the teachers need to be respected and they need to get their fair wages.”

Next on the agenda for the unions and their affiliates is to await the outcome of a meeting on Friday, February 1 with the Prime Minister and the negotiating teams. NTUCB President Dylan Reneau announced at the rally that the teachers and public service workers will get an update on the meeting by Friday night.

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