BELIZE CITY, Tues. Dec. 22, 2015–It’s official! CIBC FirstCaribbean announced via a press release on Monday, December 21, 2015, that after having received approval from the Central Bank of Belize, it plans to close its doors in Belize at the end of January 2016, but the Christian Workers Union (CWU), which represents the bank’s staff, says that the announcement was made “in a mad rush” amid an impasse between management and the union over an exit package—a salary increase, adjusted severance pay and debt forgiveness for roughly 50 workers, most of whom are uncertain about their professional future.
“The workers are frustrated,” CWU president, Audrey Matura-Shepherd, told journalists today.
She noted that the gridlock over the terms of an exit package for union members has been ongoing since October, when workers went on strike and picketed the bank’s offices.
Despite that impasse, CIBC FirstCaribbean, which is selling its assets to Heritage Bank, announced Monday that it will proceed with plans to exit Belize.
“The date for completion of the transition to Heritage Bank is 31st January 2016. 29th January 2016 will, therefore, be CIBC FirstCaribbean’s final date of commercial operation in Belize,” stated CIBC First Caribbean’s release.
“They are at a mad rush now to try and complete—even though from the start we’ve been asking them: ‘Please tell us, when is the exit date?’ The bad faith has been unimaginable,” Audrey Matura-Shepherd charged.
The announcement comes as many are preparing for the December holidays, which means that another attempt to restart the negotiations won’t likely be made for weeks.
Matura-Shepherd told the press today that the idea would have been to conclude negotiations by December 31, 2015. CWU will now have to regroup with its team and members to discuss the way forward since they need to urgently get back to the negotiating table.
“We’re down at the wire where we know they are leaving and I think that was the intention all along [to stall], because we always felt that they were dragging out and dragging out the negotiations…” the union president said.
Matura-Shepherd said that the bank originally offered workers a salary increase of 1% while the unions started around 8%, in line with what the public officers and teachers have been receiving. The bank moved to 2% and the CWU tried to meet them midway by offering 5%, but the bank has since refused to move from its position, the CWU president said. She told us that attempts by Labour Commissioner Ivan Williams to help reach a negotiated settlement have proved futile.
Amandala broke the story of CIBC FirstCaribbean’s intent to exit Belize in July 2015, and formal negotiations between the bank and the union began in August but broke down two months later.
Since then, CWU was invited back to the table but Matura-Shepherd said today that they were unable to attend the last proposed meeting because of negotiations in which they had been engaged for other entities, chief among them being the stevedores.
So this Monday, Glen Smith, CIBC FirstCaribbean’s rep in Belize, visited the CWU’s office to talk with CWU General Secretary Floyd Neal about the bank’s decision and to deliver a letter formalizing the announcement. The bank also met with staff to discuss their concerns. The press release making it public came later. Matura-Shepherd said that the release did not mention the bank’s employees.
Amandala has been reliably informed that 8 of 48 workers represented by the CWU have left the bank since the announcement of its closure, while some staff members were being interviewed by Heritage Bank.
Matura-Shepherd said, though, that those interviews seem to be more like “surveys,” since workers are only asked basic questions about themselves and no one, as far as she is aware, has gotten a job offer.
Amandala tried to get input from Heritage Bank, but our calls and e-mail have gone unanswered.
Prime Minister and Minister of Finance, Dean Barrow, had said back in August that, “…when both parties had come to see me, both Heritage and FirstCaribbean, I was assured that certainly the vast majority of the FirstCaribbean staff will be absorbed by Heritage—they did not say every last single individual but the vast majority will be absorbed by Heritage.”
Matura-Shepherd said that anyone leaving FirstCaribbean to be employed by Heritage would receive less in terms of remuneration and benefits, and because “the disparity is massive,” she said “people would be in an untenable condition,” unable to pay their bills.
We asked her what the worse-case scenario would be for workers: that, said Matura-Shepherd, would be that workers would have to stick with exactly what the old collective bargaining agreement says.
She also disputed a suggestion that the Labour Department could dictate the terms of the settlement.
“That would be a whole other level of highhandedness,” she commented.
CIBC FirstCaribbean claims that it is the largest, regionally-listed bank in the English and Dutch speaking Caribbean serving over 400,000 clients in 17 markets, through approximately 2,900 staff, across 66 branches. It will continue operations elsewhere in the Caribbean.
“Wish you luck in whatever jurisdiction you go, because in some jurisdiction you will go a step too far…” Matura-Shepherd said.
In Canada, where they are originally from, they can’t do what they are doing in Belize, because of labor laws, the CWU president commented.
Matura-Shepherd said that the Central Bank has not consulted with the union and the Central Bank, she said, seemed to be of the view that they don’t need to. The CWU wrote the Central Bank a letter asking what obligations the regulatory authority has to workers. “They wrote back and said there was none,” she elaborated.
Back in August, Central Bank Governor Glenford Ysaguirre had told our newspaper that, “The CBB’s role is to primarily ensure that the interest of depositors (and in this case borrowers of FCIB) of both banks are not adversely affected by the transaction; that the transaction was conducted at arms’ length and that the transition will take place with the minimum disruption of service, if any.”
On Monday, CIBC FirstCaribbean said, “CIBC FirstCaribbean’s customers are being left in the hands of a knowledgeable partner with the capability to manage its Belize business wisely. CIBC FirstCaribbean can therefore confirm that there will be continuity of service to customers and a seamless transition to Heritage Bank.”