BELIZE CITY, Fri. Apr. 16, 2021– The stalemate between the government of Belize and the public sector unions over salary cuts seems to have become a tense face-off, with both parties taking their corner, unwilling to budge from their position.
The coalition of public-sector unions formed to first consult with the Government on the financial situation of the country and then to negotiate regarding cost-saving measures, including government’s proposed salary cuts, has rejected the now finalized 10% salary cut and increment freezes.
The Prime Minister, Hon. John Briceño, for the most part skirted the salary cuts in his 2021-2022 budget presentation, but confirmed that they would be put into effect this year.
The PSU responded by serving notice to the Minister of Labour of an existing trade dispute and has since encouraged a “work-to-rule” order among public servants.
Last Thursday, a PSU representative, Luke Martinez, lambasted the Briceño administration during a scheduled Commission of Inquiry hearing on the fire-sale of government assets. He declared that the PSU believes that the proceedings are “a mockery”, merely staged for political expediency.
The following day the members of the BNTU picketed in front of the offices of Belize Telemedia Limited and SMART, demanding that those companies pay outstanding taxes, before salaries are cut.
Teachers manned the picket lines countrywide. In Belize City, teachers chanted and picketed outside four locations: the Digi store on Regent Street and the SMART office near that location, in downtown Belize City, as well as the SMART headquarters on the Philip Goldson Highway and BTL’s main office on St. Thomas Street.
“We are actually picketing against the taxes, the huge taxes that are owed by these business places, specifically Smart and BTL. It is out there, the salaries will be cut, but these business places owe these huge taxes. Collect these taxes,” the BNTU Belize district branch president told one television news reporter.
The companies were forced to respond to the teachers’ claims later that afternoon. According to the Chairman of the BTL board, Mark Lizarraga, that company owes no arrears in taxes. He stated that whatever was owing to the government was cleared in the settlement of the acquisition of BTL, brokered by the former prime minister, Hon. Dean Barrow.
According to Lizarraga, because of this deal, since 2010, the company has owed no outstanding taxes.
“On November 30, 2010, the company received a letter from the Office of the then Prime Minister Dean Barrow as Minister of Finance advising that these taxes that were attributable to the previous owners will be recovered by the government of Belize and I quote, ‘factored into the value of the shares acquired for which compensation is payable by the Government of Belize. In this manner, the government will recover the value of the taxes assessed.’ It is on this basis that BTL strongly maintains that it does not owe any taxes in arrears and that this matter was settled in 2010,” Lizarraga told local media.
He said that he has reached out to his former colleague in the Senate, Elena Smith, who is the national president of the BNTU, for clarification on their position and to share the company perspective, but has not since received a reply.
Speednet Communication Limited (SMART), for their part, shared that the recent media reports which state that they owe 11.1 million dollars in GST taxes, are false.
It was confirmed by the Prime Minister himself that his sister, Vanessa Briceño, was embroiled in a back-and-forth with the tax department due to tax arrears, which Hon. Briceño said were incorrectly tabulated. According to the PM, interest and charges that accrued on the debt, should not have been charged, and as a result, the amount owed by Vanessa Briceño is far less than the estimates that are being circulated by the media and the public.
In a statement released just hours after the protest in front of their offices, Speednet Communication Limited released a statement.
“It has been reported in the media that Speednet Communications Ltd., also known as Smart, is indebted to the Government of Belize to the tune of 11.1 million dollars in GST taxes. The report is false. As of 15th April 2021, Speednet Communication LTD has no outstanding taxes due to the Government of Belize,” the release stated.
The group of teachers also protested in front of the Central Bank offices. We later learned that the Joint Unions and several Cabinet ministers had met there to engage in discussions that started in the morning.
This protest is only the start of planned industrial action to be carried out by the unions in protest of the 10% salary cuts and three-year increment freeze instituted by the Government of Belize.