BELIZE CITY, Thurs. July 23, 2020– On Wednesday, July 22, 2020, exactly 101 years after the 1919 march by black Belizean veterans of World War I in the streets of Belize City to protest racism, lack of payment to them and lack of access to jobs, a similar scenario unfolded when the impasse between the receivership of the Port of Belize Limited (PBL) and its staff who are members of the Christian Workers’ Union reached a boiling point.
On Wednesday, the situation climaxed into armed aggression against peaceful Port of Belize workers who have been on 14 days of lunch hour protests to try to bring PBL to the table to discuss and justify a 10% cut in salaries and the scheduled termination of 36 staffers on the ground of redundancy, which was announced by the receivership.
The Attorney General and Minister of National Security, Sen. Michael Peyrefitte, had issued a release on July 21 stating that on behalf of the Ministry of Labour, he was seeking to file an injunction to restrain the PBL from terminating the employees.
The 22nd July was the date on which the PBL management had said that they would act on their intent, and indeed, they did that via a press release and text messages to the 36 persons at around 11 a.m. that day.
In the release, Pablo Salinas, Chief Operations Officer of PBL, stated: “The terminations due to redundancy were necessitated by the COVID pandemic, the lockdown of Belize and the Global Economic Downturn which, cumulatively, resulted in a drastic reduction in the volume of PBL’s operations and overall fall in revenue of 41%.”
These statements were made by the PBL without the disclosure of financial documents that could reveal the state of PBL’s finances and could indicate whether such salary reductions and terminations were indeed necessary. (The CWU had been requesting that such disclosure be made so that they could negotiate.)
The unceremonious termination of the workers, who were notified via text message, no doubt soured the mood of the CWU members, who objected to what appeared, in the eyes of CWU president, Mose Hyde, to be an effort at union busting.
Hyde remarked to the media that morning, “When you go for the 36 people, you selected 29 union members, but worse, you found 4 of our reps. They handpicked people who are the most outspoken, who are the most courageous, who look out for other workers and who are our most strongest union members here. The position that we are holding right now is based on the fact that you can’t just leave 36 people without a job without having a legitimate process.”
Not long after the termination message was sent, things intensified at the Port of Belize compound as an increasing number of officers established their presence on the compound and stevedores entered the Port to unload a ship that was scheduled to arrive that morning. There was shouting, and it appeared that a pickup was placed at the entrance of the Port to block entry.
The protesters then began a sit-in protest.
CWU president, Evan ‘Mose’ Hyde, Jr., had informed the media that he had spoken to the Commissioner of Police, Chester Williams, who reassured him that they could remain on the compound under the condition that they were peaceful.
That pact quickly deteriorated when the members of the Gang Suppression Unit fired rubber bullets and unleashed tear gas capsules into the crowd of sitting protesters.
This explosion of police might sent the media and protesters alike scrambling to get away from the shower of rubber bullets. One man, Trevor Jones, had been shot in the head and was lying unresponsive in front of the shed.
He was then hauled into the shed by the members of the GSU wearing civilian clothing, and was only taken to receive medical attention after fellow stevedores asked permission to remove him.
Trevor Jones has since been released from the hospital.
CWU president Evan “Mose” Hyde, in speaking to members of the media who were present on the compound, commented, “Everything is on video right, everything is on video. Imagine the brutality that we face, imagine, and extremely. I want to know who gave the order because the Minister of Labour had just called me to say that he had spoken to the Commissioner, the Commissioner spoke to me, but there was another order just now.”
“Who gave the order to have people who were fighting for their rights face such levels of brutality?” he asked. “They declared that we were being riotous, and then said, you have two minutes and then just unleashed [themselves] in Belize … [against] working people, not criminal people, not people with any kind of weapon, not people with any kind of sticks, just having the courage to stand up,” he said.
“Now we see who has the power in the state, because the state said we could stay there, but the real power in the state said no, and the authorities and the enforcement decided that’s the power that they would listen to,” Hyde went on to say.
The use of brutal force against the protestors by the GSU was subsequently condemned by both the Attorney General/Minister of National Security, Michael Peyrefitte, and the Commissioner of Police, Chester Williams.
Peyrefitte told 7News, “It makes no sense that the government would apply for an injunction on behalf of the Labour Department that would clearly also benefit the stevedores, then we go the next day and rough up the stevedores …. Because there was a three-way phone call that had myself, the Commissioner and the Commander for that Division, and the instructions were clear that those persons were to remain there until at the very least the court had ruled …. An investigation will be done and somebody will be made to pay. At least one person will be made to pay when it comes to that incident, because the instructions were absolutely clear. Leave those people on the compound until the court has ruled.”
“We will do an investigation. We have already started an investigation, and there will be hell to pay. Because under the sky and in no world would I send the Police Department to rough up and arrest stevedores on behalf of the vampire Michael Ashcroft and his Belizean minions,” Attorney General Peyrefitte went on to say.
Commissioner of Police Chester Williams took a similar stance in regards to the actions of the police officers. In explaining what transpired, he said, “… I also communicated with Mr. Hyde, who is the president of the CWU, and I told him that we were going to allow them to remain on the grounds providing that they remain peaceful. He gave his assurance that they were not about trouble, that they were going to be peaceful.
“A few minutes later, I got a call that shots were being fired at the Port of Belize Limited and that the GSU were deployed to the area.
“Now for me, that was a total wrong move … in a situation as volatile as what was happening at Port, I would have never made a decision to deploy a paramilitary unit.
“Now I want the public to understand that as a police department, we must always strive to be professional, we must always strive to do things in a peaceful manner. Brute force and ignorance does not make situations better for us.”
The Port of Belize sent out another release after that incident, stating that “CWU members caused a level of civil unrest, unaddressed by authorities, that required the port to close its gates in order to protect life and property.”
They also cited a 94% reduction in cruise-related revenue and a 26% reduction in cargo-related revenue as a part of justifying their position.
It was at around 2:00 p.m. in the afternoon that the injunction was submitted at the Supreme Court under chapter 297, specifically, section 45(3) of the Labour Act.
A ruling on the injunction is to be made on Friday, July 24, by Madame Justice Sonya Young.
(All photos by Krem News)