BML employees’ salaries will be paid by Central Government until January 2015; workers will be hired by CitCo thereafter; their charges of littering and illegal gathering were also withdrawn.
BELIZE CITY—Sanitation workers who are currently employed by the Belize Maintenance Limited (BML) got a breath of fresh air today after the Government of Belize (GOB) made a decision to intervene on their behalf on the heels of a dramatic standoff between their employer, BML, and the Belize City Council (CitCo) in regards to some 19 weeks of arrears which are owed to the sanitation company, and which, until today, had jeopardized the jobs of many of those workers who protested in desperation in front of City Hall this past Monday, August 4.
Although the disgruntled employees – who had major concerns about the stability of their jobs – were put in lockdown for venting their frustration by hurling heaps of garbage in front of City Hall, their stance has paid off to a certain extent, since GOB, in the person of Prime Minister Dean Barrow, has stepped in to bail out the beleaguered City Council mayor, Darrell Bradley.
After dispatching his Economics Affairs Ambassador, Mark Espat, to meet with BML owner, Lawrence Ellis, to agree on the structure of a government intervention, Prime Minister Barrow called a late evening press conference at the Belize Biltmore Plaza Hotel today, where he outlined the agreement in phases, and declared that the decision to pay the wages for the BML workers was not a political gesture, but a response to the situation facing them.
The PM said, “Mr. Ellis and Ambassador Espat did meet, and that meeting later resulted in the issuing of a letter on the part of the GOB to Mr. Lawrence Ellis and BML. What the letter does is to commit the Government of Belize to pay the weekly salary of the BML workers. Government will do this right through to the end of the contract between BML and the Belize City Council.
“Government has done this, of course, because there’s no way we could not act in the face of a situation that saw workers either been having laid off, or about to be laid off. For us, this is not political; this is a matter of philosophical and deeply held conviction on the part of this government.”
Prime Minister Barrow further stated, “I’m not going to comment in any judgmental way on the circumstances that produced a situation in which workers were either laid off, or were in danger of being laid off, but this government knew, I certainly knew, that we would have to find the money to ensure that these workers could continue being paid.
“So, the commitment on the part of government is to pay the salaries through January 18th , whenever the contract expires, to ensure that Mr. Ellis and BML would not be obliged to lay off people.”
While not delving too deeply into the circumstances that placed the workers at the brink of mass layoffs, Barrow commented, “Whatever is the position with respect to the contract between the City Council and BML, the fact is that the City Council is way behind on its payments and in those circumstances, one understands why Mr. Ellis would say to the workers, ‘well, if the City Council isn’t paying me, I can’t pay you.’”
The agreement between BML and GOB was signed by Financial Secretary Joseph Waight and BML owner Lawrence Ellis, and the letter formalizing the agreement states that it does not affect obligations on either side in the BML/CitCo sanitation contract.
Of note is that the intercession from the Ministry of Finance will only cover a portion of CitCo’s weekly bill to BML, and not the sum of the contract – $78,000 a week – which means that Central Government will only be paying $35,000 weekly for wages and wage-related costs for the workers employed by BML, while CitCo will be pressed to fulfill their remaining financial obligations to the sanitation company.
Mayor Bradley, who was accused of failing to adequately communicate with BML’s management in order to rectify CitCo’s overwhelming garbage debts with the company, later met personally with Ellis and his (Ellis’) attorney, Michel Chebat, and agreed to a payment schedule, as well as efforts to settle a separate judgment debt owed to BML, estimated at $2.8 million.
There is also long-term good news in terms of bread-and-butter concerns for the 170 BML workers, as the Prime Minister also announced that CitCo has committed to incorporating as many of the BML workers as is needed as part of their workforce when the BML sanitation contract expires in the next five months.
“We have met with CitCo, and we have agreed that when that contract expires, the City Council has every intention of assuming the work that is being done under the contract by BML, so we want to ensure that the City Council will, in fact, employ the workers whose employment with BML will, of course, come to an end if BML no longer has the job of work that the contract provides for; [therefore], the City Council is in turn committing to employing those workers to having them transition to the status of Belize City Council employees when the Council takes up the slack.
“Central Government will also assist the council in terms of the investment that will be necessary in extra equipment that will enable CitCo to do the job that is required, satisfactorily,” said the Prime Minister.
After the ruckus in front of City Hall on Monday, individual charge sheets were issued to 41 BML workers on Tuesday to face criminal charges of loitering, littering, and taking part in an unlawful public meeting.
Twenty-two of them were arraigned on Tuesday afternoon, and another 19 were awaiting arraignment this morning; however, after direct intervention by Prime Minister Barrow with the arresting officer, Senior Superintendent of Police, Edward Broaster, the impending cases against the workers who took part in the illegal protest were discarded.
As for the 22 workers who were arraigned yesterday, police prosecutors in charge of their cases will make a formal application before the sitting magistrates to withdraw the charge of taking part in an unlawful gathering when their case goes back to court on October 6 and 7, 2014.
Prior to the press conference, Amandala also spoke to the attorney for the BML workers, Audrey Matura-Shepherd, as she met with the employees at their company’s Baymen Avenue office, and she told us that while there seems to be a brighter future on the horizon for the hardworking sanitation personnel, all the turmoil, including wastage of resources, could have been avoided.
“From Monday when things clearly were out of control and it was all over the media, people knew how bad the conditions were, and the higher-ups did not intervene then.
“Yesterday, Tuesday, again it was a circus out at court; those people were left out there to punish them all day, just waiting. There was no intervention, and finally, today, when we’re to go back to court, there was an intervention. It’s not too late, but we could have avoided all those resources which were wasted”, she told us.
The Mayor was initially unwilling to waive the ticket fines for the employees who were charged for littering, but after speaking with the PM, he apparently had a change of heart about the matter.
Bradley also insists, as he had from the beginning of the controversy, that the contract with BML is bloated, and that the expenses are a burden to the council.
“From the very beginning, these two sanitation contracts, Waste Control and BML, have been unsustainable. They represent too significant an outflow of municipal funds; the municipality cannot afford to service its operations and also service its priorities, together with these contracts. We’ve been doing tremendous other works in infrastructure, in parks, in upgrades, and this represented too much.
“I had used the figure from our 2012 independent financial audit to say that 40% of our revenue is consumed by sanitation services. 40% is simply too much for something that is an entirely preventable activity when you are talking about littering and sanitation”, he maintained, while flanking the PM at the press conference today.
Mayor Bradley had committed to making a payment toward the City Council’s arrears to BML by next week, and although the 10-year contract between the Belize City Council and Belize Maintenance Limited will not be renewed when it expires in January, 2015, the Mayor men
tioned that it was necessary to now shift the focus toward protecting the workers for the remaining life of the current sanitation contact, and then preparing an orderly transition to the Belize City Council thereafter.
(Political observers note that the low-income workers demonstrated because they had not been paid for some time, and it is therefore a certainty that they would not have been able to pay the $500 fines levied by the City Council. The “bad blood” generated by such a financial burden would almost certainly have had a detrimental effect for the UDP in the City Council elections slated for March, 2015.)