BELIZE CITY, Mon. Aug. 17, 2020– On Friday, August 14, the members of the House of Representatives convened once more at the National Assembly Building, where a number of items were discussed, most of which related to the spike in COVID-19 cases in the country.
The Minister of Health started the session by providing a breakdown of the number of cases of the virus, which has managed to make its way into every district in the country in the matter of one week.
The result was an announcement that yet another Statutory Instrument would be published which would reinstate the dreaded eight o’clock curfew countrywide, extend the State of Emergency (SOE) for those clustered villages in the Orange Walk District as well as on Ambergris Caye (Caye Caulker and San Pedro) in the Belize District; and reduce the number of persons allowed to gather socially.
Prime Minister Dean Barrow also tabled the Crime Control and Criminal Amendment Bill, which serves to deter illegal border activity such as border- jumping and the contraband trade by adding these offenses to the list of crimes for which bail cannot be granted in the lower (Magistrate’s) courts.
While some members of the Opposition People’s United Party (PUP) did suggest that this bill may be a bit too stringent, especially for those who are simply in possession of contraband but did not obtain them by crossing the border (and perhaps acquired them without knowing the goods were contraband), the majority of the House members saw the importance of introducing these laws.
The Labour Amendment Bill of 2020 was also brought forward in light of the hardships employers have been facing as they attempt to calculate and disburse employees’ wages during this period of constant interruptions to work activity and abbreviated work shifts due to the pandemic.
The amendment seeks to put In place provisions that allow employers to reduce wages when the working hours of employees have been reduced due to special circumstances; to provide for leave of absence without pay in special circumstances; and to provide for exemption from the period of night rest.
This particular Bill also relates to recent developments in the negotiations between the Port of Belize and the stevedores who work at the port. Prime Minister Barrow highlighted that the new amendment should alleviate the difficulties that the stevedores previously had while working extensive hours to clear incoming vessels.
Under the previous law, an employee could only work fifteen hours before having to take nine hours of rest; under the new amendment, however, both the employer and employees can now agree on the extension (or reduction) of hours as necessary, and a corresponding adjustment in wages, as outlined by the PM:
“To those who might say, ‘But Lord, it’s inhumane to expect people to work for longer than fifteen hours.’ They, that is, the stevedores and their union, they know how they will arrange things. This is upon their request, and it breaks what had become another log-jam between them and Port of Belize Limited. It lessens the expenses. The shippers don’t have to send the ships away after fifteen hours, bring them back and, of course, pass on to the consumer the additional costs that doing it in that fashion would have entailed,” he said.
While the amendment is being presented as a solution for employer-employee contentions, the National Trade Union Congress of Belize (NTUCB) feels differently about these changes and argues that they are not in favor of its members. This was mentioned in a letter sent by the NTUCB to the Prime Minister. The letter, dated August 17, reads:
“Looking at the contents of the amendments being hurried through the House, we cannot identify one thing that would be beneficial to any worker, but can readily identify where their rights under our existing Labor Laws are being eroded, in favor of employers. We question the use of the Labor Advisory Board, the tripartite body empowered by the Labor Laws with the authority and responsibility to study and make recommendations to the Minister on all matters affecting workers.”
The letter also said that the NTUCB, whose president is Marvin Mora, is disappointed that GOB did not consult with them before moving forward with the amendment, and the union calls on the PM to meet with them to discuss the issue.
Additionally, the NTUCB issued a press release urging workers countrywide not to support the amendment, as it “seeks to dilute the rights of the workers as articulated within the existing Labor Laws, and only benefits the employers.”
The NTUCB also called the amendment “absolutely distasteful, as it spits on the face of the tripartism to which Government, employers’ and employees’ representatives have prescribed for years now.”
In conclusion, the NTUCB called on the Senate not to support the amendment in their meeting scheduled for Wednesday, until the NTUCB has been properly consulted by the Government.