I look with amazement, five years later, at the hypocrisy that has been evident in the United Democratic Party’s administration’s treatment of workers at Port of Belize (PBL) during their 12 years in government. The Barrow administration has spent at least half of those years suppressing free speech and freedom to association and oppressing workers’ rights even more. They infiltrated unions, tried to union bust, debilitated some unions and even influenced elections within their ranks. I say this as a fact and not pure theory, speculation or conspiracy. I have been within the ranks of the unions and have met the traitors who have colluded with the government. Some are political operatives and have benefitted from political jobs and favours and promotion. They know who they are!
In its treatment of and dealings with the workers of Port of Belize Limited, it has shown blatant disregard for the waterfront workers, who have been the backbone of unionism for over half a century. I see the hypocritical nature of politics playing out here, because when it is now convenient, the government wants to appear to be siding with the workers, yet by the same token, they appeared to have sent the brutality of the police against them — to the point that a handful of protesters were bombarded with tear gas and shot with rubber bullets, injuring them physically, without justification.
Before today’s protest
I say it is hypocrisy because I have very vivid memories and records of the outright oppression of PBL workers, specifically the stevedores, during my presidency at the Christian Workers Union.
It was the 18th of December, 2015, when the stevedores had the ‘wind knocked out of their sail’, as they were betrayed by the government in favour of the Tux Vasquez-managed PBL, acting, I believe, on the behest of the Ashcroft Alliance. On the 7th of December, 2015, the stevedores, displeased with the outright attempts of PBL’s management to deny them 11 years of retirement benefits, started an immediate strike action, which was lawfully done, as they were not essential workers under the law. This was because, while in negotiations to settle the issue that had been left pending for 12 years, the CEO Tux Vasquez, in an underhanded move, said he never intended the sums negotiated to be retroactive. The outright bad faith shown resulted in the strike, but the government, instead of siding with the stevedores, sent the police to harass them and intimidate them, while trying to shield PBL so that it could bring new hires to take over the jobs of the striking stevedores.
To me, what was also very amazing was that many of the stevedores are staunch supporters of, and campaigners for, the UDP, yet it seems that the big money of the Ashcroft Alliance was more powerful and enticing. After 11 days of strike, with absolutely no consultation and while the stevedores were staging their protest, the government underhandedly signed into law a new amendment to the Essential Services Act. The press release issued by the government basically was to ensure that if the workers wanted to protest they could no longer stage an impromptu protest but had to give the government 21 days’ notice, at which time there would be sufficient room to quell them and break them up. The stevedoring aspect of the port was made an essential service, but the office workers were not, so those workers, I dare say, can stage a protest anytime, unless the government amends the law once again, to cut them down!
The government press release read as follows:
“The Hon. Hugo Patt, Minister responsible for Labour matters, hereby informs the general public that a statutory instrument has been signed amending section 2 (a): Settlement of Disputes in Essential Services Act Chapter 298 of the Laws of Belize Revised Edition 2011. The amendment will take effect upon notice published in the Gazette.
“The amendment will read as follows: (2) Accordingly, the Schedule to the Act is amended by inserting in the appropriate numerical sequence the following entry, ‘Port Services involving the loading or unloading of ship’s cargo (without limiting the application of this act to such services in relation to petroleum products, as specified in this schedule)’
“This amendment will make Port Services in Belize fall within the provisions of the Act, which provides for 21 days notice by either party (Union or Management) before any industrial action can be taken, allowing for early intervention by government into trade disputes and reduce the likelihood of lockout or strike.”
It goes without saying the stevedores were forced to fall in line and to date, five years later, they are still fighting for their rights at the Port. Ironically, at the time, the PBL workers were being corralled by management, and they had basically managed to divide and conquer them. It was like putting the house slaves against the field slaves, but now the master is putting out the house slaves as well! Then, when the stevedores went on strike, the office workers did not stand with them… Today, the stevedores are not only standing with them, but taking the bullets and tear gas for them! That is solidarity!
Now the office workers got their walking papers. The office workers did not realize then that you always stick with your union, as the slave master will always look after his enrichment first. The twist in this entire ordeal, however, is that the office workers are NOT essential services workers, so they do not have to give 21 days’ notice to strike. They can strike all they want and cannot be stopped.
I wonder if the government will go amend the law now, to include them, or, it being close to election time, if this sinister Government will be the Pontius Pilate and appear to be cleansing their conscience. I see that the PBL on 22nd July issued a press release claiming it had to terminate the services of thirty-six (36) workers due to redundancy, claiming that it is due to a 41% fall in revenues. Wow! That is a lot of people without a job during this COVID-19 crisis. Even more amazing is that the redundancy is being done without following the letter of the law under the Labour Act. In its usual high-handed fashion, PBL, in bad faith, has refused, despite it being a proper request, to open the account books of PBL to reveal the financial standing of the Port so that the union and the authorities can determine if indeed the redundancy is needed. The authorities have a right to verify if indeed 41% of revenues fell and if the financial standing does not allow for mitigation of loss of jobs. After all, over all this time PBL has been making money!
The blatant disregard by PBL for the directives from the Labour Department cannot go unnoticed. This is what happens after the government got in bed with them and helped them against the workers, some five years ago. That emboldened them to the point that they knew how to get the government in their hands to do for them as they wanted. However, this is an election year, and at least the government, in regard to optics, as with many things involving Ashcroft, has to appear as if they will now support the workers, but I DO NOT trust them! The Attorney General has applied for an injunction for and on behalf of the Labour Commissioner, against PBL, to stop the termination. Justice Sonya Young has reserved judgement for Friday, 24th July, so by the time you are reading this, the verdict would have been out.
What is sinister about the entire ordeal is that while the courts were being moved to restrain PBL from terminating the 36 workers, elements within the police issued on 22nd July, 2020, orders to have the Riot Squad of the Police Department move in on the unsuspecting protesters, who were peacefully standing their ground. The protesters, per media reports, decided to form a human chain and sit in front of the Port. What ensued thereafter, was a barrage of tear gas and rubber bullets fired onto a small group of unarmed protesters.
Legal stipulation for Redundancy
It is the law that an employer cannot just unilaterally declare employees redundant, and to ensure protection for workers from wanton disregard by employers like PBL, the law mandates that PBL had to have first informed the union, CWU, and the Labour Commissioner, that there are circumstances that may merit redundancy. This had to be done prior to terminating any workers and, at minimum, one month from the time they realized that circumstances that merit termination due to redundancy existed. Section 45 of the Labour Act lays out the steps to be followed, and those steps are MANDATORY!
The law is clear about this, and PBL violated that law. Not only were the workers terminated in the most unconventional way, by text messages, but some were terminated while on lawful leave. To compound the already unjust situation, three weeks prior, the employer, again unilaterally, cut the salaries of the workers by 10%. This has serious implications, because it means that the termination benefits of the workers will be based on the recently reduced salary and not the previous sum, which was a bit higher. This reeks of malice, as the intent is not only to make them lose their jobs, but to also reduce the benefits being paid out to the terminated workers. This stinks and is malicious, deceptive and outright diabolical!
If this trend and precedent set up by the unscrupulous PBL is allowed to stand, workers everywhere in this country are at risk. This fight is not only for the PBL employees, but for all workers in this nation. Let me see if the government will now go amend the law to help the workers, like they did five years ago to help PBL and the Ashcroft Alliance!
There is a need for an uprising of workers, as many employers are now using and abusing the COVID-19 pandemic as an excuse to carry out their macabre plans against the working class of this nation! It cannot be tolerated.
As workers, we should all heed the cry that “if they touch one, they touch ALL!”