Last Wednesday, July 22, we watched in shock as the Gang Suppression Unit (GSU) fired tear gas and rubber bullets at workers of the Port of Belize Ltd. (PBL). The workers were on the PBL compound protesting decisions by the receivership which is managing the company to reduce the pay of workers, which they had done, and fire 36 workers, many of them union members, which they planned to do on Wednesday, July 22.
The Christian Workers Union (CWU), which has been representing the workers, had informed the receivership of a notice of strike action, and workers who were already protesting during their lunch break, went on work-to-rule. The government had informed the receivership at PBL that they were going to court on Wednesday, July 22, at 2:00 p.m. to seek an injunction to prevent the firing of the workers. At 11:00 a.m. on Wednesday, while workers were standing or sitting on the ground in the Port’s compound, protesting the receivership’s decisions, a number of workers received their walking papers via text, on cellphones.
On Wednesday afternoon, we listened with our mouths agape as PBL’s high-priced lawyer glibly spoke about the brilliance of the company’s management, which had apparently prevented the possibility of the judge ruling in favor of the injunction.
In the Amandala of Friday, July 24, Kory Leslie, in a page 2 story, said that PBL’s attorney, Senior Counsel Godfrey Smith, “argued that the issue that the injunction was seeking to address had already passed, since the terminations had taken place…that the opposing side had a week to file for an injunction and waited until the day of terminations to make the application.”
In our precious little democracy, one would have thought that PBL would have stayed their hand at least one day, until the court had heard the government’s case.
CWU and PBL have been at loggerheads for years because the receivership that took over PBL from its owner, Luke Espat, has been very disrespectful to its workers. One of CWU’s demands was that the receivership showed the union the company’s financial statements to justify its decisions, and the receivership refused to do so.
On the matter of the CWU request to see the financials of the company, PBL said they were exercising their right as a private company to keep their business affairs sealed. In response, the president of the CWU said that other companies have had no difficulty with divulging financial information when they were making claims about redundancies, because they understood that ethically, morally, layoffs and wage cuts during this pandemic have to be justified.
The GSU, which acted on orders from an unknown source, used brute force to break up the protesting workers, and PBL says the GSU acted because the workers were committing acts of vandalism. In response, the CWU president said that there was no riot on the compound and that PBL can’t claim that the GSU was justified in its actions when even the Prime Minister, the Attorney General, and the Commissioner of Police said otherwise.
The fact is that the temperature at the PBL compound had gone up after the PBL management had viciously and disrespectfully terminated workers before the government’s application for an injunction was heard in the courts.
The receivership/management at PBL should know, or they should have been told, that PBL is not a regular private company. It is an essential utility that was sold by our leaders to an entrepreneur who they must have believed (we hope) would have increased the efficiency of operations through his energy and creativity and know-how. The bank which loaned money to the owner of the port has every right to collect what it is owed, but this country must determine who controls this port which is at the heart of commerce in our country.
In a 2011 story, the government’s newspaper, Guardian, said that the port was sold, “under a secret arrangement between the PUP government and Luke Espat”, and that when it was sold it had recently been dredged “under a $40 million contract” that saw the depth of the water increase to 28 feet.
In that same story the Guardian said, “it is widely speculated that Ashcroft has hesitated in taking over the Port only because it would mean taking over a potentially serious liability in the condition that it is in (disrepair)”, but the writer of that story could not have considered that our country has rights to make good on the loan and take back our essential asset.
We know much of the history of the Port of Belize, up to what led us to get a smudged eye on the world stage on Wednesday, but some details remain elusive. There is no transparency in the way our governments handle our business, and when this UDP government took over, they were only about exploiting information in their party’s interest.
We know that the port was largely earning its keep, but its owner, Mr. Luke Espat, lagged on payments to the Belize Bank for a number of projects. One of Mr. Espat’s major projects, Renaissance Towers, described by the Amandala as an 8-storey, full-service luxury condominium complex built at a cost of about US$18 million, fell into receivership for some years, after which it was sold at a public auction, reportedly at the fire sale price of $4.75 million, to a group which included some very prominent UDP members.
We know that in 2017, Crocland Adventure & Eco Park and other failed ventures of Mr. Espat were up for auction, but we don’t know the names of those persons who landed in luck at that fire sale.
The present government could probably convince their more gullible members that if they intervened in the receivership, which has been running the port going on 8 years, that Espat would automatically get back ownership of the port, and what a calamity that would be — a UDP government going the extra yard to get back the company only to see it fall back into the hands of a PUP who had failed. All indications are that the people support taking back the port, although Mr. Espat would get no sympathy.
The world is changing. Whatever changes must come to the port, and all our businesses, so that they become more competitive, will in some instances cause pain, but business persons, like the present management at the port, must understand that our workers (labor) are partners, not slaves. We did not fight for independence to become the tools of the greedy. There will be pain, there is pain, but Belizean workers must not suffer all the licks, and when the payment comes, they must get their just rewards.