BELMOPAN, Wed. Apr. 28, 2021– There was a special sitting of the Senate on Wednesday, during which the senators engaged in a debate about the budget for this fiscal year before a divisional vote was carried out and the budget was passed. During the debate, the senator representing Belize’s unions, Hon. Elena Smith, spoke “on behalf of the working class” regarding the national budget. For weeks, Senator Smith, who is also the national president of the Belize National Teachers Union (BNTU), has led the coalition of Belize’s unions in a series of protests against a proposed 10% cut to the salaries of public workers, which is included in the budget.
Smith used the time allotted to her during the Senate budget debate to speak on that matter, and during her address, she invited the Senate to consider the ways in which the GOB is contributing to the lack of sustainability of the existing wage bill. To drive the point across, she discussed a number of benefits being afforded to the Ministers of Belize, while teachers and public servants are being asked to make a sacrifice and accept a 10% salary decrease. These were her sentiments:
“As teachers we are expected – and our public servants as well – we are expected, we are being told that we should sacrifice. And we should sacrifice our abilities to provide for our families, to educate ourselves and our children. While our Ministers keep their entertainment allowance, their telephone allowance, their housing allowance. But yet we, the workers of this nation, must be the one to make all the sacrifice, it seems. And yes, I am sure that I will hear that these persons are willing to give up ten percent of their salaries. And yes, they’re willing to give up a portion of their allowances. But, as was said earlier, Madam President, when you look at that and you compare what that equals to what my ten percent or my teachers’ or my fellow public officers’ ten percent will equal, there’s no comparison there. None whatsoever,” Smith remarked.
Smith further stated, “And we are being told, Madam President, that we must put country before self-interest. Now I wonder how many of us are aware of the many times that we as teachers have put country before self. We are doing so as we speak. Putting country before self. And the reason we do so as unions is because we are fully aware that to get our country to where it needs to be, we must be willing to stand. We must be willing to fight.”
Senator Smith went on to remind the Senate that the BNTU has stood up against both the PUP and the UDP in previous years for treatment which they deemed to be unfair. According to Smith, teachers would not only be unable to meet their personal financial requirements following the salary decrease, but would also be unable to purchase stationery, textbooks and other necessary materials to provide Belizean students a proper education. She then posed a question to the GOB — concerning what type of guarantee the teachers would have that their sacrifice would actually yield a substantial benefit to the country.
The answer, asserted Smith, is that only through the enactment of good governance policies would teachers get that guarantee. She believes that accountability and compliance need to be enforced through the numerous commissions responsible for monitoring the actions and expenditures of government officials. Smith even went as far as to suggest that those Ministers who fail to file their declarations of finances on time should be denied their salaries. The purpose of this approach, Smith says, is not to single anyone out for their political affiliations but to hold administrations accountable, regardless of who is running the country.
Through the unions’ industrial actions, Smith hopes that the Government will “better appreciate” why the unions have outrightly rejected the national budget. She also hopes that despite the salary decrease being made official, the GOB will sit with the unions to further the discussion on good governance to avoid further tension between the Government and the public and/or private sectors.