BELIZE CITY, Mon. Jan. 24, 2022– Last Friday, stevedores were on watch at the compound of the Port of Belize after Belize Defence Force soldiers were taken to the pier head when the gang of stevedores scheduled to unload the ships on that day refrained from doing so in an attempt to protest a number of moves by PBL that have been viewed as provocative and insulting by the stevedores. According to one stevedore, the current CEO at the port, Andy Lane (the manager of a private company reportedly owned by Lord Michael Ashcroft, who is the reported business associate of Prime Minister Hon. John Briceño’s family) took the members of the country’s military—officers trained to use arms to kill in international confrontations that threaten the country—to the pier head himself, and shortly after, they saw trucks heading in that direction which gave an indication that the security forces would be used to offload the ships. This led the stevedores who were onsite, to enter the port, despite being subject to what Neal described as manhandling, and a scuffle ensued.
Neal told local reporters that they decided to go back outside the PBL compound and stand watch, to wait and see if the BDF soldiers would be used to do their work, since they had received information from the Christian Workers Union’s president, Evan “Mose” Hyde, that PBL had informed him that those soldiers were at the pier head for security purposes. It was not specified what exactly was being secured by the soldiers, who were not present a month ago when a similarly intense standoff between locals and a multinational entity resulted in a blockade outside the ASR/BSI compound in Orange Walk that brought a key national industry to a halt—an intense period, during which a group of about 40 cañeros were seen on video footage attacking the chairman of a sugarcane farmers association and machetes were brandished on camera. (Notably, the Prime Minister and several ministers were involved in brokering a truce to address that standoff in the industry—something they have seemingly refused to do for the stevedores.) The CWU believes that the Government of Belize, in approving the use of our security forces, has not only sided with the private Ashcroft-owned entity in charge of the receivership, PBL, but has also “broken the back” of a legitimate industrial action. In addition, the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) between the stevedores and PBL mandates that no one should be allowed to do the stevedores’ work, according to Neal.
CWU president Hyde said that rumors had emerged that non-stevedore labor would be used to offload the ships, and some stevedores had stayed outside the port all night. All parties, including CEO Lane, confirmed that the BDF were at the pier head, and Lane confirmed what Hyde said he had been told: that the soldiers were there for security purposes.
On the previous day, the stevedores had staged a protest following PBL’s rejection of their request that two skilled workers who had resigned the previous year be rehired to serve as crane supervisors in order to ensure safety during unloading operations. Their request that two persons be added to the list of substitutes was also rejected by the PBL human resources personnel, who had reportedly taken the stance that no hiring would take place until an agreement on Secondary Substitutes is signed.
This enraged the stevedores of the CWU, who had already been disheartened by both PBL’s and the Prime Minister’s apparent disregard of the economic blow they suffered after GOB’s decision, with PBL’s acquiescence, to allow the transfer of sugar-loading operations to Big Creek. The stevedores, who had issued a notice for industrial action about 8 months ago, are still at odds with PBL due to an apparent unwillingness of the port’s management to grant them a sugar redundancy package to compensate them for their losses. The workers are reportedly requesting 5 million dollars to offset the earnings they have lost and will continue to lose for the rest of their career as a result of the transfer of the sugar ships to the Big Creek Port. Guy Neal, who has been a stevedore for 40 years, said that the sugar separation package agreement is the crux of the matter.
“The whole bottom[line] is that they need to talk to us about the separation package for the sugar. This strike that we pull off yesterday, this we give that notice about 7 to 8 months ago. We decide that we won’t [cause] any issue to the public around Christmas time, we will make everything flow, everybody get their Christmas situation together, we get our bonus, get your ham, get your turkey. But now we have to make a stand.” Neal said.
CEO Lane told local media that the situation is very unfortunate and regrettable due to the impact it is having on ships with import containers that are destined for Belize. He said that those cargo containers will go back to where they came from, or they might wait, but that the decision will be made by the ship operator. More ships were also lined up for unloading this weekend.