BELIZE CITY, Mon. Nov. 21, 2016–For 11 days in October, the Belize National Teachers Union (BNTU) engaged in industrial action against the Government of Prime Minister Dean O. Barrow, as it agitated for a number of governance reforms, as well as for other issues of national importance to be addressed, and by the time the BNTU called off its strike action, the government had agreed to several of its demands.
In the wake of the strike, however, the government decided it would not pay salaries to those who participated in the strike. And not even the threat of a lawsuit would make the government budge from its position that it had adopted with the full cooperation of most of the school managers that it would not pay salaries to the more than 1,500 teachers who went on strike.
The BNTU, after due deliberation, decided to take out an injunction against the Ministry of Education. Adelaida Guerra became the second claimant to the lawsuit against the Government.
Today, Chief Justice Kenneth Benjamin ruled in favor of the BNTU’s injunction and ordered the government to pay the teachers their full salaries.
The hearing was held in the courtroom of Chief Justice Benjamin for recording purposes, but apart from that, it was a closed hearing and the media was not allowed inside the courtroom.
Following the ruling, however, attorney Eamon Courtenay, SC, who represented the BNTU and Guerra, spoke to reporters.
Courtenay prefaced his remarks by saying that “The Hon. Chief Justice granted the BNTU and Ms. Guerra the injunction that we sought.”
“He found that we had an arguable case and that there is a real likelihood that we will succeed at trial. And he felt that the balance of convenience was in favor of the teachers, that the teachers should not be denied the enjoyment of their Christmas,” Courtenay added.
Courtenay described the government’s action in attempting to deny the teachers their salary as “mean and Scrooge-like.”
“The CJ found that the teachers need to be paid and to be paid on time,” Courtenay offered. “More people will be affected than the ones who need to do the overtime for the teachers to be paid on time”, he further said.
In regards to what took place on Friday, the BNTU attorney explained, “we put forth a very long submission. We put forth four arguments on behalf of Ms. Guerra and the union.”
“First of all, the government is obliged to pay to the managing authorities, and the managing authorities are obliged to pay to the teachers. The rules as they stand, which the government is bound by, the government cannot, in the middle of the year or any month, decide that they are not going to pay the managing authorities. That is an arrangement that occurs on the basis of a year, and they disburse it monthly. The rules specifically state that if government wants to change it, they must give a year’s notice. So there was no one-year notice given,” Courtenay explained.
Courtenay said it was an arbitrary and highhanded action by the government that was intended to punish the teachers. “So we came to court and said that the teachers are entitled to their pay and if the government wants to suspend the salaries, there is a procedure; the schools must be closed for 15 days. The schools were only closed for 11 days. So yet again, they attempted to act above the law and not comply with the rules,” Courtenay explained.
“The Chief Justice said those were clearly arguable things that had to go to trial and in the interim, he was going to maintain the status quo so that they can have their hams and turkeys like everybody else this Christmas”, Courtenay said.
Courtenay said that they wrote the Ministry of Education on November 9 asking for an undertaking that they would not withhold the salaries; and notifying the Ministry that if it did attempt to do so, they would be taking the matter to court.
“They intended to tie the Chief Justice’s hand; they started processing it and then tell CJ, well, if you give this injunction and tell us that we have to pay, we can’t pay it on time. That is bad mind and spite, and the Chief Justice would have none of it, and he said, pay the teachers on time,” Courtenay pointed out.
The BNTU national president, Luke Palacio, told reporters, “Success follows success.”
“When we went on strike, we were striking for a number of issues, particularly good governance for the country of Belize. Our Belizean people have supported us fully. We explained to the ministry, to the Minister, to the Prime Minister in our letters that we were prepared to make up the time.
“Those negotiations have taken a long, long time. Our teachers have made great sacrifices. Our teachers continue to make great sacrifices to this nation. And when the ministry decided that this is the course of action that they intended to take, we had no other choice but to seek legal advice and to come to the court for a final decision on this matter,” Palacio said.
Palacio explained, “We have said to our managers, ‘we are prepared to do everything we were doing before we went on strike’. We went back to the classroom without anybody coercing us. We thought and we knew that was the responsible thing to do.
“But the Minister of Education, who is clamoring and wanting to be the Prime Minister of this country, has decided that he was going to punish the teachers. That is the only thing you can see out of his action. What the BNTU did for this country, no one else has done over the many years and we again are grateful to our Belizean brothers and sisters, both at home and abroad.”
Palacio explained that the Easter holidays and Christmas holidays are lawful holidays for teachers and said, “We are looking to take those holidays.”
Palacio was asked how the teachers were going to make up the time. He replied that they were not given the opportunity to explain that to their managers, who complied with the stance of the government.
“We say it again; we did nothing wrong when we demonstrated and went on strike,” Palacio asserted.