The management of the Belize Telecommunications Limited (BTL) has set a serious precedent by firing a lead negotiator for the Belize Communication Workers Union (BCWU) while the two parties were engaged in Government-mediated talks over the termination of three other workers at the end of January.
Now, the BCWU’s general secretary, Christine Perriott, is the fourth union member to be fired from BTL within a month.
Perriott, who after 17 years at BTL was employed as an Internet technician, told Amandala today that it is a clear act of union-busting. She said that she had been threatened about her job because of her union activities, and after having filed two grievance complaints with BTL’s executive committee, the company presented her with a terse termination letter, telling her simply that her services are no longer needed.
But before Perriott got the letter, BTL’s Human Resources manager, Martha Molina, who signed the letter, called Mrs. Perriott into a meeting and told her that she was being let go because the communications between her and the company had severely broken down.
Perriott was the union’s main spokesperson, and the wife of BCWU president, Paul Perriott.
Today we were unable to speak with Molina when we called her at BTL and she told us to “go through PR.”
This evening Acting Labor Commissioner, Adelfino Vasquez, said this is the first time a lead negotiator has been fired in the middle of discussions to settle a union-management dispute.
“Because of the firing of Mrs. Perriott, we cannot see how we can ask them to go back to the negotiating table to reach an amicable solution when one party has been aggrieved,” he added.
Vasquez said that the findings of the arbitration tribunal are legal and binding. The Labor Department is now waiting for the parties to recommend who will sit for them on the tribunal. The tribunal will have 21 days after it is set up to report their findings to the Minister. Until then, all industrial actions, including the go slow, would have to cease, Vasquez said.
The union’s 21-day strike notice was due to expire this weekend, and take effect on Monday, March 5. But Vasquez said that with a tribunal in place, strike action would have to be stalled.
But apart from going the route of the binding tribunal, said Vasquez, the law also allows the union to sue the company if it feels it has a case of union busting on its hands. He added that Perriott could also file a case in the Supreme Court if she believes her constitutional rights have been violated.
Today, Perriott told us that she will do just that, because she believes that her rights to freedom of association and freedom of expression have been violated. Beyond that, she said that she would continue to serve as BCWU’s general secretary and will continue to fight for the rights of BTL workers.
We note that in 2005 – amid a fiery dispute between BTL and the BCWU – BTL also got rid of one of the union’s leading activists – Dale Trujeque, then a middle-level management employee in HR, after he was accused of inciting trouble for BTL.
Another mid-level management employee who had been visibly supporting the union, Mark Usher, left BTL because he expected a termination. Most recently, Dr. Sharmayne Saunders was served her termination after she wrote a strong letter to management on an issue that she was concerned about.
The Public Service Union (PSU) is strongly supporting its sister union, BCWU, and today, it issued a stern public statement decrying the termination of Christine Perriott and the other three employees terminated this January.
“These anti-union discriminatory actions come amidst the unions’ declared intention to strike and while having given the process prescribed by law a chance to resolve its dispute, although reports coming out of BTL indicate frequent threats to workers,” says the PSU release. “This is clearly union busting and a strategy to instill fear in workers (divide and conquer) and violate their human and trade union rights.”
PSU calls for the immediate reinstatement of all four employees, and furthermore calls on Belizeans to boycott companies controlled by BTL’s majority shareholder – Michael Ashcroft – and specifically the Belize Bank, Radisson and BTL.
“If a wealthy man refused to abide by the law then we need not do business with him,” the PSU added.
The Ministry of Labor itself issued a press release late yesterday evening, calling the termination of Christine Perriott “an act of bad faith.”
“If indeed the facts confirm Mrs. Perriott’s termination to be true, the Ministry of Labor finds this latest development an act of bad faith on the part of BTL in light of the fact that the Ministry is currently engaged in discussion with both the BCWU and BTL management to resolve ongoing differences as a result of workers having been terminated,” said the Ministry’s press release.
It added that the Ministry of Labor will “…fully investigate and do everything in its power to ensure that the rights of Mrs. Perriott, if indeed she has been terminated, have not been unduly violated.”
For the avoidance of doubt, BTL issued a press release Wednesday publicly confirming Perriott’s termination.
“The actions displayed by Ms Perriott, and the personal views she has expressed, concerning the Management team and the Company as a whole, have clearly indicated that she is not happy working as an employee of BTL within the current operating environment,” the release said.
The company said that it has already paid Mrs. Perriott all the money that the company owes her, and that someone else has already been promoted to fill her position.
BTL denies Perriott’s allegation that she was fired for her union activities, and claims that she was terminated in accordance with the law.
The release goes on to throw strong caution to present BTL workers saying, “There is no room at BTL for those that want to engage in disruptive activities and create conflict, and who do not have the interest of all stakeholders at heart, namely its employees, shareholders, customers and the whole of the Belize community that we serve.”
While Government has already called for arbitration, BTL’s chairman of the executive committee, Dean Boyce, wrote the union yesterday asking for them to come back to the negotiating table, but this time, BTL’s management is setting out the terms of those talks. In a letter that elicited hysterical laughter from union officials yesterday, Boyce said that the parties should meet more frequently for one-hour sessions, and each party should have no more than 10 minutes to talk before the other party has a chance to respond.
But GOB has already intervened in what has clearly become a deepening dispute. The Ministry will go the route of binding arbitration to settle this dispute that has been ongoing for a month now.
Christine Perriott explained to Amandala this morning that she was the one who had to do the fact-finding for the BCWU when the three workers, who were union liaison officers, were fired last month. In fact, it was the BCWU’s determination that the firings were illegal and against the terms of their collective bargaining agreement with management that caused them to issue the strike notice which is due to expire this Sunday.
Nelson Young, one of those three persons, also spoke with us this morning and said that they have been targeted since the unrest of 2005.
Young said the he has worked with BTL for 22 years, and it was after he and his colleagues reported some phones missing last year that three of them got the axe. But he maintains that they had nothing to do with the missing phones and that the matter was never properly investigated.
Both Young and Perriott say that the Labor Department is not protecting the rights of workers.
“You can’t protect me, then take a walk. We don’t need a labor commissioner,” Perriott said.
She told us that when she raised the matter of termination to Vasquez on Tuesday, he told her that they can’t do anything and she has to seek redress in the court.
Vasquez told us the same thing today, when he said that either Perriott or the union would have to sue BTL.
Today, the workers also raised the issue of BTL’s instability, in light of most recent attempts by American Jeffrey Prosser to get back on BTL’s board with four seats and the non-executive chairmanship.
Perriott said on the KREM WUB this morning that she will get back her job at BTL “under the appropriate and correct owners,” adding that the employees of BTL have been having to work under a lot of uncertainty with both Ashcroft and Prosser claiming control.
She also said that, “This is not about people getting their jobs back but about the rights and dignity of workers – working free from threats and intimidation in any company and to provide for family.”
She said that, “If government does nothing, the law and the government have failed us”…
The PSU in its release said that BTL is behaving “like a rogue company,” and has not only gone to bust up the union, but has openly defied the judiciary by ignoring a recent court order. That court order was issued by none other than the Chief Justice, Dr. Abdulai Conteh, telling BTL to hold off on its Annual General Meeting last September until certain conditions were met. BTL proceeded with that meeting and has so far not been levied with any charges of contempt.
Another sister union, the Belize National Teachers’ Union (BNTU), also weighed in on the issue Wednesday. The BNTU called the actions of BTL’s management “shameless, illegal and provocative.”
“This dangerous act of defiance of the legal and constitutional rights of our workers and trade union leadership; our trade union laws and Collective Bargaining Agreements will not go unchallenged,” said the BNTU release. “It is a glaring act of intimidation and union-busting which we will not tolerate and will fight to the bitter end with whatever means.”
The union called on the Ministry of Labor and the Government to intervene to secure the reinstatement of all four workers who have been fired since January.