BELIZE CITY, Mon. Sept. 14, 2015–Sixty CIBC FirstCaribbean International Bank (FCIB) employees, faced with an uncertain fate following the bank’s decision to pull out of Belize and sell its assets to Heritage Bank, reportedly in an effort to “sharpen [their] focus on the growth opportunities [they] have in other markets,” staged a sick-out on Friday, September 11, to express their discontent – resulting in the temporary shutdown of three of five FCIB branches, specifically the branches in Orange Walk Town, Belmopan and San Cas Plaza.
It is reported that the sick-out action was staged after employees got information that the Vesting Act to transfer the bank’s assets would be going to the House of Representatives for approval on Tuesday – which is before a scheduled meeting at which the employees’ union, the CWU, and the bank were to settle the terms of the workers’ exit package. The passing of the Vesting Act will thus leave the employees at a disadvantage in their negotiating position, says Audrey Matura-Shepherd, president of the Christian Workers Union. (CWU), to which many of the employees belong.
According to Matura-Shepherd, sixty of the bank’s employees, including managers who are members of the CWU, will be left without a job. She further noted that, although the workers were told that some of them would be hired by Heritage Bank, “they (Heritage Bank) can’t commit that they will take any quantity of employees, and it would be on a one-on-one basis who will be employed by Heritage Bank.” Matura-Shepherd also mentioned that 50% of the loan portfolio being acquired by Heritage Bank consists of loans held by FCIB employees, who will not be able to make payments on such loans if they are not employed.
“They are jilting our employees; they are members of our union and they are not just employees, they are people who formed part of this community, who are productive citizens of this community and who are voters and have a say,” Matura-Shepherd said.
Matura-Shepherd said that Prime Minister Dean Barrow, the Minister of Finance, is the only person who can delay this process and give the employees the time they need to secure a fair exit package. She continued to state that it is the Prime Minister who has the power to say on Tuesday at the House of Representatives, “… you know what, I am going to put this off, and I am going to be satisfied that they are negotiating …”
Today the Prime Minister held a press conference to address a number of issues. He said that the Christian Workers Union (CWU) was guilty of incompetence in failing to renew its collective bargaining agreement (CBA) with the bank which had lapsed 1 ½ years ago. Even though FCIB welcomed the opportunity for CWU to submit proposals that would allow for negotiation of a new Collective Bargaining Agreement, it failed to do so, the Prime Minister claimed. It was not until 2 or 3 weeks before the sale of FCIB to Heritage Bank that the CWU finally responded, said Barrow.
He continued to state that since negotiations for a new CBA have started, despite the lateness of such negotiations, they are hopeful that some type of agreement can be reached. However, while the outcome of those negotiations is pending, there is no need to delay the passing of the Vesting Act, Barrow opined.
PM Barrow went on to say that in passing the Vesting Act, all the government is doing is facilitating the transfer of the assets of the Bank. He then listed other examples where the government had passed a Vesting Act, such as when Michael Ashcroft bought the Royal Bank of Canada, when the FCIB bought Barclays Bank, and when Scotia Belize bought Scotiabank.
According to the Prime Minister, the Vesting Act will allow for a smooth transition where mortgages and accounts currently held by FCIB are concerned. He said, “Our obligation is first and foremost to the depositors and customers of FCIB.”
The Prime Minister said, “When we pass the act tomorrow, it doesn’t take effect until a commencement date which is fixed by the Minister. The Act, of itself, provides that the Minister can’t fix a commencement date until certain things have happen, so this does not in any way prejudice negotiations between FCIB and staff.
Finally, he said, “There is enough time for the staff to come to a resolution with FCIB on their severance pay and whatever other pertinent matters with respect to the collective bargaining.”
In a letter sent to Amandala this evening, however, CWU president Audrey-Matura Shepherd countered Prime Minister Barrow’s assertions, stating that “it was impossible to negotiate an Exit Package with FCIB one year ago, because one year ago, although the Bank knew it was seeking buyers and even began discussions with its current purchasers, there was no way the employees could have known with certainty that there would be a sale and closure of the bank and come September 2015, they would be out of a job.”
Matura-Shepherd further stated, “This intentional focus on the CBA instead of the exit package, does not speak to the fact that from early 2014 at its first meeting with FCIB management at which a timeline for a new CBA negotiations was discussed, FCIB knew its plans in Belize was no longer long-term. At said meeting, if management wants to be honest, it was noted that CWU informed FCIB that the earliest they can even start to discuss matters surrounding a CBA would be June 2014, at which time not even FCIB was preoccupied with a new CBA, because the old one carries over and remains valid until a new one is negotiated.”
In addition, Matura-Shepherd, who noted that the bank’s regional manager had told CWU representatives that their efforts to sell the bank and move out of Belize had been taking place for the last eighteen months, mentioned that the CWU had not received from the FCIB any correspondence which indicated any interest on the part of the bank to negotiate a CBA prior to June 2015, and at that point (June 2015), she said, “the sale was almost a done deal.”
Matura-Shepherd further reasoned that, even if a CBA had been negotiated a year ago, “it would have been done in the spirit and belief by workers that there would still be FCIB operating in Belize and long-term prospects of a job.” “The fact that FCIB is exiting Belize changes the face of any negotiations, the focus of any negotiations, the nature of any negotiations and the demands of the employees,” she said.
Finally, Matura-Shepherd stated that the CWU is not asking the Government to stop the sale of the bank, but is merely requesting that the Prime Minister not “facilitate the bad faith tactics of FCIB, which is refusing to address the most pressing issue, i.e. the exit package of the workers.”
In concluding her letter, Matura-Shepherd said that, “The considerations the workers are asking for are not beyond the means or capacity of the FCIB, it is not the government that will spend to meet their demands … all the government has to do is not rush through this Vesting Act in the House of Representatives and pull the rug from under the feet of the workers.”