BELIZE CITY, Thurs. Oct. 18, 2018– A meeting between the negotiating teams of the Christian Workers Union (CWU), representing stevedores, and representatives of the Port of Belize Limited (PBL) — their employer, was brokered today by the Minister of State in the Ministry of Labor; Dr. Carla Barnett. When the meeting ended, however, there was still no agreement between the two sides to end the impasse between them, and this prompted the Minister of Labor to extend the 21-days’ strike notice that the CWU had issued, which was due to end tomorrow, by an additional 10 days, during which time government is expected to set up a tribunal to resolve the impasse between the parties.
Each side spoke to the media as they exited the Labor Department office on Belize City’s Albert Street, where the negotiations were held.
President of the CWU, Evan “Mose” Hyde, explained to reporters that the Port of Belize negotiating team wrote a letter to the Minister this morning, essentially asking for the Minister to rescind the CWU’s 21-days’ strike notice.
“This is after the Minister has decided to put together the tribunal, and she has the power to extend the 21 days. Our legal advisor said she has the power to do that. So she has extended 10 more days. We disagreed, and we felt very insulted that the Port would have written a letter to get the Minister to try to take away our 21-days’ notice, without even copying it to us, without even addressing us,” Hyde said.
Hyde added that the Minister was able to get them to move from that position, and we went back in and presented them a verbal description of our counter proposal on the hours of work. It was sent to them during the lunch time today. So they have asked for more time to look at it, and we are scheduled to meet on Tuesday morning, to discuss what they feel about our counter proposal.
Hyde, however, said that there are problems on the horizon with respect to the size of the gang. “When it comes to the gang size, we will not move. Our gang has already been reduced and we have told them that if there is anything that is made of titanium, it is that position. Even though we are here to negotiate, when it comes to the gang size, we will not move,” the CWU President said.
Hyde said we have informed that we will write a letter to the Minister indicating that we have another problem. “We are not declaring an impasse on it, but we are saying that based on their response, they are firm on their position, and we have told them that our position is made of titanium. Then we want the Minister to get that on her radar—to know that we have another serious problem between us right now,” Hyde continued.
Hyde was asked what is the way forward and what was the bulk of today’s conversation.
“The bulk of it was about the gang composition and what we have said to them that is very important when it comes to the hours of work, for us to get from them a sense of whether or not the direction that we are going with our counter proposal is a direction they are okay with. Because accompanying that verbal description of our counter proposal is the work that has to be done by our accountant with numbers and that is going to take some time,” Hyde explained, “but if we make a wrong move our members are the ones that will carry the burden of that. We can’t make a single mistake with those numbers, and our accountant has expressed that, we can’t rush that.”
Hyde said that they are still seeking that intervention from the Minister of Labor, to create an exception for what stevedores do. We believe it’s a unique profession and we believe the nature of it requires that kind of attention from the law. We will hear from Port on Tuesday what they feel about it. Unlike the Port when they found a situation where we were not compromising on, they did not want to look at any other thing. Our position is, well, we have stated the matter of the gang composition and we are not moving, but we will look at discipline, we will look at grievance mechanism, because we want a collective bargaining agreement, that’s what we are seeking, the CWU President declared.
Minister of Labor, Hon. Dr. Carla Barnett, explained that they want to extend the 10 days so that they can proceed with the establishment of the tribunal that is provided for under the law. “So today we wrote both the CWU and the Port of Belize formally telling then that we are extending the 21 days by another 10 days. And we have written to the Chamber of Commerce and to the National Trade Union Congress to identify representatives who can become a part of the tribunal that is to be set up under the law.”
Minister Barnett said the way the discussion were going, they were talking about important things. So for us, it was a good meeting that they had. Minister Barnett said that if they don’t talk they can’t reach a collective bargaining agreement, and that is the objective.
“There is hope,” Minister Barnett said.
Chief Executive Officer of the Port of Belize, Arturo “Tux” Vasquez, was asked what was the Port’s position, if they wanted the 21-days’ notice of industrial action to be taken off the table, so they can be comfortable negotiating forward.
“The point that we arrived at would have taken the 21-days’ notice off the table; however, the Minister has explained why her extension has been for 10 days. I am okay with that explanation that she provided,” Vasquez said.
Vasquez said he did not expect the 21 days to be extended. “But the Minister explained that she needed more time.”
Vasquez was asked why there is a push now to reduce the size of the gangs.
“There was an agreement signed in June of 2017, where there were four points that were agreed to, and that’s when the stevedores got their increase in their pension from 3 percent of regular salary to 4 percent of production bonus, which actually multiples the pension ten-fold. So what I am trying to explain to the union is that one particular item that we would have discussed, further reduction, came as a result of a complete joint agreement. It was negotiating, I get this and you get that. Because it’s a part of the original give-and-take negotiation, I think it should remain on the table,” Vasquez explained.
Vasquez was asked his reaction to the counter proposal made by the union. Vasquez explained that he got the counter proposal late today and he looked at it and some of it can be considered and some of it cannot be considered. “I need some time to look at it,” Vasquez said.
Vasquez said that the Port has agreed to pay the stevedores four years back pay, “but it will take quite a lot of work to backdate it, but we will pay it in two payments, I think the 15th. and the end of November.”