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House passes bill to make mandatory school-age 16

HighlightsHouse passes bill to make mandatory school-age 16

Photo: Sitting of the House of Representatives, Friday, February 2nd, 2024

Updates were provided on the OSH bill, Maya Land Rights, CWU sugar redundancy payment, and salary adjustments pending for judicial officers

by Marco Lopez

BELIZE CITY, Mon. Feb. 5, 2024

A request made by the Leader of the Opposition, Hon. Moses “Shyne” Barrow, for leave to move the adjournment of the House was denied by House Speaker, Hon. Valerie Woods at the start of the sitting on Friday. She deemed that the request, made under Standing Order 14, was not a matter that was definite, urgent, and of public importance.

Questions to Ministers

In his questions to ministers, Barrow asked the Prime Minister, Hon. John Briceño, to answer when the salary adjustment promised to workers within the judiciary would be honored.

PM Briceño, in his comments, noted that the approval for increasing the pay scales of judicial officers by two levels was made under the UDP administration as far back as 2012. Eight different posts inside the judiciary were marked to be positively impacted by the adjustments. 

These include the Deputy Solicitor General, Assistance Solicitor General, Senior Crown Council, Senior Magistrates, Crown Council, Magistrates, Legal Officers, and Legal Assistants. To date, these adjustments have not been finalized.

PM Briceno in his response said that the government had to review the salary of each officer – hinting at cronyism with claims that the children of UDP officials who were sent to law school and returned were afforded higher salaries than other crown counsels.

In December 2023, a supplementary appropriation bill was passed which allocated $1.5 million to finalize these adjustments. Hon. Briceño said that, while the money has been made available, the Judicial and Legal Services Commission (JLSC) is now in the process of revising the terms and conditions for the contracts of officers within the judiciary. He shared that amended letters of appointment were given to officers reflecting increased salary.

The question posed by the LOO, however, of when exactly these salaries will be paid, was not answered by the PM. This will hinge on the time the JLSC takes to finalize the new contracts of the judicial officers owed a salary increase.

BDF not granted a salary increase

The soldiers of the Belize Defence Force were not granted a salary increase in the 2019 exercise under the UDP which was focused on regularizing the rate of annual increments of service men and women, said PM Briceño. 

In answering Barrow’s question on the salary increase for the BDF, PM Briceño noted that the process was instead a standardization exercise, and any increase would have been as a result of that process.

He noted, however, that some mistakes were made, and lower-ranked soldiers were placed on the wrong pay scales. Now retired soldiers who were overpaid are concerned about the status of their gratuity. PM Briceño assured them in his remarks that the government, “would not touch a dollar of their money.”

CWU in discussion with PBL Interim Board 

Barrow, in his questions, also asked about the status of the sugar redundancy payments owed to the stevedore members of the Christian Workers Union. The Essential Services Tribunal ruled in favor of the stevedores in January 2023, and by December 2023, a reconstituted tribunal upheld its ruling that the stevedores should be paid for lost wages due to the move of sugar loading operations to the Big Creek Port Facility. 

Now, with the government “take over” of the Port of Belize, hopes are that a better employer-employee relationship between the port and its workers will take form. In responding to Barrow’s question, the Minister responsible for labor, Hon. Oscar Requena said that the new interim board at PBL is currently in conversation with the CWU to address all outstanding matters.

Balderamos calls for caution in Maya Land Rights rhetoric 

Minster responsible for Indigenous People’s Affairs, Hon. Dolores Balderamos Garcia said that the government and Maya communities are reaching a difficult stage in their negotiations over the Maya Land Tenure. 

In the nine years since the 2015 Consent Order which solidified Maya Land Rights, there is very little progress to speak of, but much more tension between the parties. The government submitted a Free Prior Informed Consent Protocol (FPIC) to the CCJ which was rejected by the Maya leadership. 

It has developed a Road Map, and Draft Policy for Maya Land Tenure, all of which have been called into serious question by the Maya communities.

Recently, a very strong statement issued by the leadership of the Maya Land Rights movement put the government on their toes, and high alert. Balderamos took time to recite excerpts from the statement she deemed glaring. She said she found the statement — “The land is our lives, the land is our future, and we stand united to protect it for our children and their children’s children. The land belongs to us, Maya Quiche and Maya Mopan of southern Belize” — concerning.

She made a point to note that when communal lands are granted, it will be in the form of a single title that is inalienable. This means that it cannot be sold or used as any sort of collateral or bank transaction.

In continuing to read from the declaration she said, “We cannot claim the whole of the Toledo District. I would like to say, Madam Speaker, that I caution, and I ask for restraint,” Balderamos said.

She said that the message from the government is that the government will stand strong and firm.

“We will not be bullied or succumb to unnecessary threats, and we carry out our responsibility to the Maya people and all Belizeans,” she said.

Is OSH coming soon …? 

Minister of Labor, Oscar Requena rose to give an update on the status of the Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) Bill. This bill was first presented to the Cabinet as far back as 2011. It was not sent to the committee stage until 2014, and feedback from the Belize Chamber of Commerce and the National Trade Union Congress (NTUCB) resulted in additional years of delays to get the bill right.

In November and December 2023, the ministry collaborated with an OSH working group and engaged in widespread consultations and sensitization sessions. Proposed amendments to the bill were presented to the Cabinet and have since been reviewed and approved as of January 30, 2024.

This reviewed bill has since been passed on to the Attorney General’s ministry, and will be sent back to the Cabinet after approval, after which it will be sent to the lower and upper chambers of the National Assembly for passing.

Bills passed

Several bills were passed by the House of Representatives in last Friday’s sitting. Amendments to empower the new Firearm and Ammunition Control Board to issue firearm licenses to Private Investigators and Security firms were passed in an amendment to the act that governs those companies. Minister of Home Affairs, Hon. Kareem Musa explained that this was necessary following the establishment of the new regime to grant firearm licenses in Belize.  

The bill that took up the majority of the day’s debate was the amendment to the Educational and Training Act to move the mandatory school age for children to 16-years-old. While they were supported in principle by the Opposition, both the LOO and senior UDP parliamentarian/ former Minister of Education, Hon. Patrick Faber, aired reservations and concerns.

These stem from what they observe as an inefficient system that is currently failing to provide the resources to keep school-age children inside the classroom. Faber said that a focus on early childhood education is a key area for the development of Belizean students.

“If you will find additional monies and your goal is to keep students in school, spend the money on the children so that they can start strong. The reason you can’t keep the 12-year-old, and 13-year-old and the 14-year-old as it is now in school is because when they started Infant 1, they couldn’t read; they neva gone da pre-school, because it is not mandatory in this country, so da if yo parent want send yo,” Faber said.

He added, “Let me propose to you, that what is more important that we do is to make early childhood education in this country mandatory; make it so that children who are three years of age have to go to school, because that is what will keep them in school longer.”   

Minister of State in the Ministry of Education, Hon. Luis Zabaneh said that the shift to competency-based education and the support now provided to students across the country have driven up enrollment rates of students, especially males, which he claims was on a decline under the UDP administration.

He said that the free education program, which gives students access to uniforms, meals, and books and covers their tuition has also contributed to the rate of enrollment in urban and rural areas.

A bill to formally incorporate the National Women’s Commission as a statutory body was also passed in the House on Friday. Minister of Human Resources, Hon. Dolores Balderamos Garcia said that this move is to strengthen the body’s capacity to advance Belize’s commitment to gender equality and equity, promote awareness of the national gender policy, and advocate for the fulfillment of Belize’s goal to eliminate all forms of discrimination against women.

With the new legal status, the National Women’s Commission will have the independence to access and raise funds, and will have 13 members from a diverse cross-section of Belizean society. While she was not present, UDP parliamentarian, Hon. Tracy Panton sent a message to her party leader, Barrow, to ask the minister in charge of these amendments to ensure a diverse selection of members, and to ensure that an expert on gender equality is connected to the commission. Hon. Balderamos Garcia gave assurances that this would be done, and praised the House on what she considers a unanimously passed legislation.

An amendment was also made to the Families and Children Act. This update to the Act clarifies the obligation of a spouse to maintain a non-biological child of a marriage or common-law union, and to change the name of the National Committee for Families and Children to the National Commission for Families and Children.

Minister Balderamos Garcia explained that the court handed down a decision last year that a man was not obliged to maintain non-biological children from a former union. This had to be clarified within the legislation, thus the reason for this amendment. Hon. Balderamos Garcia said that the purpose of the change to the law is to place responsibility where it should be – that is to say – the biological parent. Besides this, the renaming of the National Committee for Families and Children to a commission instead is, according to Balderamos, to also incorporate and operationalize that body’s clear mandates and commission.

Besides these bills, there was an amendment to the Harbor and Shipping Act to provide for the regulation of marinas, and provide for a requirement to show the financial capabilities of foreign vessels to sustain lawsuits and other liabilities.

All these bills were taken through their stages and passed by the Lower House. These now go to the Senate for final ratification.

Adjournment 

At adjournment, LOO Barrow presented a dated letter from the Belize National Teachers Union sent out in late December with a number of demands and a threat of industrial action. While Barrow opined that the letter was a foreshadowing of possible industrial action that could take place in March if the teachers’ demands are not met, Minister of Education, Hon. Francis Fonseca dismissed what he considered a “sky is falling” presentation by Barrow.

Fonseca said, in fact, that following the release of the letter – which threatened industrial action if a number of outstanding and pressing concerns tabled by the teachers were not met – they met with and held comprehensive discussions with the union and the government financial officers. He notes that those meetings were very fruitful, and reminded the LOO and the House that, while complex, the government is acting in good faith to resolve the issues.

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