Monday is a public and bank holiday in Belize, in honor of our ancestors of the Americas and their struggles to defend their lands and their way of life from invaders from Europe, since 1492 when the Italian navigator, Christopher Columbus, in ships sponsored by Spain, grounded on the shores of an island in the Caribbean. The actual day set aside as Indigenous Peoples’ Resistance Day is October 12, but it will be commemorated on Monday, October 9, because midweek holidays are awkward and an added strain on the economy.
October 12 was first commemorated as Columbus Day, in recognition of the coming of the Europeans and their contributions. But completely lost in that celebration was the evil the Europeans brought to the Americas: their weapons that subjugated peoples who were in many ways more advanced than they were; their diseases that nearly wiped out the peoples in the Americas.
Belize is a land of many races, but on Monday our focus will be solely on our ancestors who valiantly withstood invading forces that came to push them aside so they could plunder and desecrate the land. Our indigenous ancestors stood their ground against great odds, and the battle continues to this day. Happy Indigenous Peoples’ Resistance Day to all Belizeans!
Playing hard ball with the common people
Business is a “big boys” game, but the tactics of the management of the Port of Belize Ltd. (PBL) are so consistently ruthless and reprehensible that Belizeans have to wonder if someone isn’t getting perverse joy from using their vast resources to make the common people squirm. Lord Ashcroft and his friends will have their share; they are the owners of the port, or they act as if it is theirs, but they cannot have it all, and they have to be called out for behaving shamefully.
For PBL, it’s ‘we give you this, you give us that’, with no concern for what is just, fair. The apparent leader of PBL, British-born-and-raised Lord Ashcroft, has been described as a big fish in a very small pond, and he must really enjoy throwing his weight around, for he does so a lot. For his ends, he befriends Belizean politicians and lawyers, and he hires the best local talent who don’t mind serving his extremely selfish interests. Under the present management at PBL, the workers at the port are consistently being disrespected.
The laborer/boss relationship isn’t always friendly, and on occasion it isn’t conducive to production, but ordinarily the workplace environment isn’t contentious. But since the PUP government of 1998-2003 privatized the publicly owned port in Belize City, which is known today as PBL, and it fell into the control of the group called the Ashcroft Alliance, the climate at PBL has been unhealthy. It is yet to be fully explained how PBL fell into the control of the group, but since then the story there has been about shrinking the pay of workers, strikes and rumors of strikes, lawsuits, loss of business, and one complete meltdown in 2020 when our security services, apparently at the behest of the bosses at PBL, went on the compound and threw teargas and opened fire with rubber bullets on workers who were protesting during their lunch hour.
Central to the present trade dispute between the Christian Workers Union (CWU), the representative of the stevedores at the port, and PBL, is the greatly reduced contract to handle bulk sugar shipments from Tower Hill in Orange Walk — a huge loss which the CWU blamed on PBL’s failure to invest in infrastructure and equipment, and to engage with the workers. While PBL and the CWU argued over a redundancy payment for stevedores after bulk sugar started bypassing PBL for the port in Big Creek, GoB made an ex gratia payment of $1.5 million to be shared among the hundred-plus stevedores for losses they had suffered since the port was privatized. Incredibly, PBL went to court with the argument that the GoB payment was done illegally. The funds from GoB would have given the stevedores stronger legs to stand on in their negotiations with PBL, and the company scored a coup when it got the court to freeze funds that had not yet been disbursed. PBL also has another lawsuit against the stevedores and their representatives, this one based on the claim that a short-lived industrial action, an 8-day strike by stevedores, was illegal.
Reports today are that the stevedores are working without any insurance against injury, since their old insurance agreement has expired. Ms. Leonora Flowers, the CWU president, said the bosses at PBL are insisting that the workers concede to a change in work hours, and they want to use workers’ insurance, a requirement in free societies every place on the planet, to leverage their position. Flowers said that the CWU “cannot negotiate away terms in the Collective Agreement, the current one, without sitting down and properly negotiating those terms.” It’s mind-boggling that PBL would dicker with the essential insurance policy of stevedores, who are at particular risk of injury while on the job.
In respect to work rotations, as a good faith measure the CWU leadership said they had acceded to a call by PBL to restructure the work shift for offloading ships, a change which PBL claimed would improve efficiency, but that fell through after PBL stagnated on the negotiations for the redundancy payment. Fantastically, in respect to the lawsuits, the CWU leadership said PBL had suggested it would drop them if the union supported a demand for importers to pay higher container tariff rates.
The stevedores have indicated that they will not give in to PBL’s attrition tactics. Relative to the masses, the stevedores are well-off, but not so well-off that they have the resources to fight the billionaire PBL bosses in court. Slowly, the bank balance for the stevedores’ union fund has been dwindling, and they are now scrambling, conducting a “dollar drive” to raise funds to defend themselves in the cases against them that PBL has in court.
In response to GoB’s support being thwarted by PBL with a lawsuit, PM Briceño could physically show his support for the stevedores, like US president Joe Biden recently did when he went to the picket lines to show his hand for autoworkers who are striking for higher wages from auto companies that, after being bailed out by US taxpayers’ money in 2008, are now raking in huge profits. But it is unlikely that we’ll see our prime minister publicly endorsing the dollar drive of stevedores. That may be because Belize’s economy is fragile, and the big companies are mostly foreign-owned; they could take the money and run, which would cripple our financial system.
The way PBL carries out its negotiations with CWU and the stevedores, it appears sometimes that it is a sport for them, for sadistic kicks. The people can help end their mockery, and their brutal tactics, make PBL conduct its business with respect. Workers’ insurance should not be part of negotiations to get a change in work shifts. The CWU and the stevedores, to raise funds to help them in their important fight against capitalism at its most rapacious, are calling on the people to step up and contribute to their dollar drive.