BELIZE CITY, Thurs. July 23, 2020– For weeks, the media has outlined the ongoing efforts of the Christian Worker’s Union (CWU) to defend the rights of its members employed by the Port of Belize Limited (PBL).
A letter was sent to the Ministry of Labour on July 7th pursuant to section 15 of the Settlement of Disputes in Essential Services Act. This was done in light of the PBL’s lack of preparedness to rescind a 10% salary reduction to employees and alleged breach of the 2002 Collective Bargaining Agreement between the CWU and PBL.
The letter also served as a 21-day notice that the disgruntled employees would be taking industrial action if no developments were seen in the matter.
On Tuesday, July 21, however, the Government Press office published a press release stating that the Minister of Labour responded to the CWU the following day, advising that in accordance with Section 12 of the aforementioned Act, the matter would be referred to the Essential Services Arbitration Tribunal for determination before the 21 days had expired.
According to the press release, the Ministry had moved to establish the Tribunal with haste and all members had been appointed with the exception of a representative from the National Trade Union Congress (NTUCB), which had yet to submit the name of their nominee.
Nonetheless, the Ministry assured that as soon as they received the name of that nominee, he/she would be appointed and the Tribunal would convene on Wednesday, July 22, to discuss the matter.
Hours later, the press office issued another statement outlining the Attorney General’s intent to file a request for an injunction at the Supreme Court on Wednesday, July 22, on behalf of the Ministry of Labour to stop PBL from terminating 36 employees, the majority of whom are members of the CWU.
This application for an injunction was decided upon by the Ministry after it apparently received an email on July 12 from the PBL mentioning their impending redundancies in the labor force and requesting a tri-partite meeting between themselves, the CWU and the Ministry of Labour to discuss the matter.
Allegedly on the same day they received the email, the Labour Commissioner advised PBL to follow the redundancy process outlined in the collective bargaining agreement where possible, and if not, to comply strictly with the requirements of the Labour Act, Chapter 297 – Revised Edition 2011.
Despite this advice, the PBL sent another letter dated July 15, 2020, informing the Ministry and the CWU that 36 redundancies would in fact take effect on July 22, the same day that the GOB announced the Tribunal was scheduled to meet, almost a week later.
Allegedly, the Labour Department reiterated their advice that the Port follow the requirements of the Labour Act, specifically Section 45 (3), which speaks to the proper protocols and procedures that must be followed.
Nonetheless, by midday on Wednesday, July 22, the Port proceeded to terminate the 36 employees via a text message, and the chaotic aftermath quickly became countrywide news.
On the afternoon of that same day, as a result of the Attorney General’s filing for an injunction on the 36 terminations, the dispute landed before Justice Sonya Young. The Port was represented by Senior Counsel Godfrey Smith, who argued that the issue that the injunction was seeking to address had already passed, since the terminations had taken place, and the Port of Belize feels that they gave the Labour Department and the CWU ample notice of their intentions to terminate the 36 employees.
Crown Counsel Kileru Awich, who represented the Government of Belize, argued, however, that PBL breached its statutory obligation to inform and consult with the Labour Commissioner regarding the terminations.
Because there was no consultation, the Labour Department asserts that the terminations are in violation of the Labour Act.
Additionally, in an interview with 7News, the Minister of State in the Ministry of Labour, Dr. Carla Barnett, pointed out that in cases of redundancy, employers are required to give one month’s notice before termination; however, the PBL’s letter regarding its planned termination of staff members was sent out on July 15.
Smith argues, however, that the opposing side had a week to file for an injunction and waited until the day of terminations to make the application.
Also, he claimed that the Port did not fail to consult, and even if they had, the remedy would have been an order to compel a consultation, not reinstatement of the employees.
The session ended in a deferment of the ruling until 10:00 a.m. on Friday, July, 24, when Justice Young is slated to give her decision on whether to grant the injunction.