General — 24 December 2015 — by Rowland A. Parks
Parties react to law making stevedores an essential service

BELIZE CITY, Mon. Dec. 21, 2015–Two weeks ago stevedores, employed by the Port of Belize Limited, went on a three-day strike over the failure of the port management to come to an agreement with them over retroactive pay and retirement packages.

The stevedores, most of whom are members of the Christian Workers Union, struck without warning, causing one ship to turn back without off-loading its cargo, while another ship waited outside the Belize City harbor until the stevedores’ industrial action was settled, before it was off-loaded.

That was the last time stevedores were able to resort to industrial action without serving notice to the port management, because the government moved swiftly to rein them in by signing into law on Friday, December 18, a Statutory Instrument (SI) regulating stevedores under the Essential Services Act.

Minister of State with responsibility for the labor portfolio, Hon. Hugo Patt, signed the SI, which amended Section 2 (a): Settlement of Disputes in Essential Services Act Chapter 298 of the Laws of Belize Revised Edition 2011.

A press release from the Ministry of Labour, Local Government and Rural Development explains, “This amendment will make Port Services in Belize fall within the provision of the Act which provides for 21 days’ notice by either party (union or management) before any industrial action can be taken, allowing for early intervention by government into trade disputes and reducing the likelihood of lockout or strike.”

Audrey-Matura-Shepherd

The government’s move to curtail stevedores has been met with applause from the Belize Chamber of Commerce and Industry (BCCI). On Friday, December 18, the BCCI sent out a press release congratulating Prime Minister Dean Barrow and his administration for the signing of the SI, which amended the law.

“The public has experienced how detrimental the strike was on the country of Belize when the Christian Workers Union and the Port of Belize failed to reach an agreement regarding a retroactive retirement plan…” said the release, which ended, “The BCCI is the voice of the business community and as the officially recognized Employer’s Organization in Belize by the International Labor Organization (ILO), has been engaged through the tripartite mechanisms. The BCCI has been advocating for a comprehensive review of the Labour Act since 2009 and has made representation through the Labour Advisory Board to include Port services as an essential service. The SI was necessary and is much appreciated by the private sector.”

While the business community applauded the government’s signing of the SI, the sector of the workers which it directly impacts, the stevedores, issued, through the Christian Workers Union (CWU), a blistering condemnation of the government’s action.

In its press release issued today, Monday, December 21, the Christian Workers Union captioned its release as follows: “GOB sides with the big people against stevedores.”

“CWU denounces the heartless and high-handed manner in which the stevedores have been undermined by the government, when it clandestinely and shamelessly proceeded to sign into law a Statutory Instrument making ‘Port Services involving the loading or unloading of ship’s cargo’ part of the definition of Essential Services under the Essential Services Act, Chapter 298,” the release stated.

The CWU castigated the government for its one-sided approach to the issue, saying, “It is regrettable that not once has the government or its agents sought to consult the stevedores, through their union, about the issues that have clearly prompted the government to make such a drastic move after hearing only one side.”

The CWU release added, “…the Chamber of Commerce and Industry wasted no time in boasting in its press release that the Chamber has made representation through the Labour Advisory Board to include Port Services as an essential service. Ironically, the president of the Chamber is no other than Mr. Arturo ‘Tux’ Vasquez, CEO of Port of Belize Ltd (PBL), who was appointed PBL Receiver by British Caribbean Bank and who is a known Michael Ashcroft loyalist.”

“It is most unfortunate that yet again the Government of Belize has chosen to take the side of big people against working Belizeans,” the CWU release lamented.

The president of the CWU, Audrey Matura-Shepherd, is quoted in the press release as saying, “…that the plight of stevedores appeared not to have been a factor in GOB’s high-handed decision.”

Matura-Shepherd pointed out that stevedores are casual workers very much at the mercy and whims of PBL, and that for over a decade PBL has dragged out negotiations for a collective bargaining agreement (CBA).

“Due to the casual nature of their employment, stevedores are denied the protections regular workers benefit from under the current labor laws. Unlike other workers in entities that have been declared essential services, stevedores are deemed casual workers and do not have full benefits under the Social Security scheme. They do not get regular employee wage and are denied basic benefits that full-time employees enjoy such as severance, paid sick leave, paid vacation leave and security of employment,” said the CWU press release.

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