Photo: (l-r) Deborah Ruiz, SSB CEO, and Joseph Waight, Financial Secretary, holding Supreme Court project donation
by Kristen Ku
BELMOPAN, Mon. May 22, 2023
On May 21, the Social Security Board (SSB) donated a sum of $500,000 to the government of Belize to cover some of the costs of repairing the Supreme Court building, which had been damaged by the recent Hurricane Lisa.
However, the donation has sparked anger among certain members of the public, including numerous Belizean laborers and their representatives who have criticized the move.
Hon. Patrick Faber (UDP) and Hon. Tracy Panton (UDP), the area representatives of the Collet and Albert divisions, have both expressed the view that the donation violates the board’s principal purpose, which is to protect the contributors’ hard-earned money and ensure timely benefit payments.
The repair of the Supreme Court, though important, they believe, should be the government’s responsibility, not that of diligent workers entrusting their monies to the SSB.
“Now, I am not saying that those repairs are not absolutely necessary; but it is not the function of the Social Security Board to be using the contributions of hard-working Belizeans to gift to the government. We live in a real society, and the hard-working men and women in my community is (sick) taking lick. They are finding it very hard to put food on the table. That’s a reality. It’s even harder for them to get access to the benefit programs offered by the Social Security Board,” remarked Hon. Panton during last week’s meeting of the House of Representatives.
Similarly, Hon. Faber outlined in a lengthy Facebook post the chain of adverse effects put into motion by this type of contribution by the SSB.
“This decision sets a worrisome precedent that undermines the confidence of workers in the ability of the Social Security Board to fulfill its core obligations. It erodes the trust and faith that we have placed in them, signaling that our hard-earned contributions can be diverted without our consent or any meaningful consultation, jeopardizing our financial security,” expressed Faber.
In response, Deborah Ruiz, the SSB’s CEO, justified the decision, noting the existence of a disaster relief fund. What the public is questioning, however, is whether these funds should be used to aid the government at the expense of the country’s workers.
Even before the $500,000 donation for the Supreme Court building repairs, back in March, the SSB had ignited controversy by approving a loan of $3.5 million to the Hol Chan Marine Reserve (HCMR). This loan was aimed at decreasing the presence of sargassum on Belizean shores—a threat to the local tourism industry. But critics argued that such initiatives should be financed by the Government of Belize, rather than with the contributions of hard-working Belizeans.
At that time, Ian Pou, HCMR’s chairman, had defended the decision, describing the project as more than just installing barriers for sargassum, but more a matter of protecting the marine life and tourist industry.
The donations and investments by the SSB are particularly irksome to a number of Belizean workers who, despite being under significant financial strain, are still waiting for their benefits from the SSB.
Elstwin Willoughby, for example, a 58-year-old stevedore, has noted that, after a workplace accident back in July 2022 left him disabled and unable to work, his request for compensation from the SSB has only resulted in the payout of a small portion of what he believes he deserves. The father of five now faces severe financial hardship, and his current monthly stipend from the SSB fails to meet his living needs.
This controversy has left many Belizeans with a sour taste in their mouths in regard to the institution and its management, and a call is being made for greater transparency, accountability, and interest in the workers whose funds it manages.