BELIZE CITY, Thurs. Aug. 20, 2020– The members of the Senate convened at the National Assembly building on Wednesday to debate a number of bills, with the majority of those bills being related to law amendments that became necessary due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
These included the motion to extend the State of Emergency in Belize for fourteen days; the Crime Control and Criminal Justice Amendment Bill, which seeks to expand the offenses for which a magistrate shall not grant bail, specifically to persons found in possession of contraband goods; a Bill to amend the Customs Regulation Act, which seeks to remove the imposition of a fine as a penalty for certain offenses and replace it with mandatory imprisonment, specifically for those caught in the act of illegally crossing the borders of Belize (i.e. border jumpers); and finally, the very controversial Bill to amend the Labor Laws so that employers are able to reduce wages when the working hours of an employee have been reduced in special circumstances, put their employees on a leave of absence without pay in special circumstances, and be exempted from the requirement that their employees have a period of night rest.
These pieces of legislation were the subject of a number of long-winded debates between most of the Senators, with Attorney General Michael Peyrefitte being at the center of much of the fray.
While initially stating his support for the Crime Control and Criminal Justice Amendment, Senator for the Business Community, Mark Lizarraga, mentioned that the challenge of dealing with border jumpers requires a more holistic approach and a more analytical response:
“While I don’t lay all the blame at the feet of our security forces, the government must recognize that it has a responsibility for security. Especially security from outside threats. That is a given…We know of these things that have been happening in these communities for so long, and we failed to address them…We have to face the reality, Mr. President. Many of these people make a living and a livelihood from the activities that they participate in. And I’m not saying that we support that type, but it’s a reality, and we need to deploy more than just the stick for those communities. We also have to be able to deploy a carrot, because for many people, this is how they make their livelihood. We need to question as well, why is it that they go across? Why is it that goods in Melchor or Guatemala or Mexico are cheaper than in Belize?” remarked Lizarraga.
Senator Lizarraga’s points were met by several rebuttals from the Attorney General Peyrefitte, who questioned the relevance of Lizarraga’s comments to the matter which was being discussed. However, other members of the Senate, such as Senators Michel Chebat and Isabel Bennett, followed up with their own questions regarding the specific protocol for capturing and quarantining border jumpers as well as the negative impact that their conviction might have on their families.
In response, Hon. Peyrefitte outlined the process for convicting border jumpers, which, he asserted, is clearly explained in the most recent Statutory Instrument passed this week. The procedure is as follows: Once a border jumper is caught, the Ministry of Health is alerted while that person is held in place or detained. When the Ministry of Health (MOH) arrives, the offender is given a rapid COVID-19 test and placed into mandatory quarantine. Once the test shows that person is negative for the virus, they are then sent to the Magistrate’s Court. In the event that the test results indicate that the offender has COVID-19, that person would not go to prison while infected, so as to prevent a community spread.
In addition, the Attorney General also made mention of a new quarantine facility in the Mountain Pine Ridge area (made possible by Cabinet-approved funding), where border jumpers will be taken and tested, and where they, in the event that they have COVID-19, will be quarantined exclusively. This facility can hold up to 100 persons at a time, and will be guarded by the Belize Defence Force.
Peyrefitte also took the opportunity to respond to Senator Lizarraga’s previous comments with condemnations of his own:
“If we took too long …I’m assuming that you already had this idea. And if you had this idea, why didn’t you tell us? Why didn’t you put forward a no-bail idea for border jumpers? Why wait until the government does it for you, to come and now criticize us for taking too long? So what I suggest, and this will lead me to Senator Salas’ points – and I think he fell short in his comments. If any of you in this chamber has a brilliant idea, don’t wait for the government to come with it here and then you support it but criticize it at the same time for taking too long…Senator Salas, I expected you to say then that you were disappointed in the decision of the Leader of the Opposition to come out of the National Oversight Committee,” he said.
The debate that followed regarding the Labor Law Amendment also spurred lengthy exchanges among the senators. Previously, the National Trade Union Congress of Belize (NTUCB) had expressed their absolute disappointment in the bill due to the government’s lack of consultation and transparency in its process of formulating and passing the law. As a member of the Tripartite Social Agreement, the NTUCB was not consulted on the matter and, therefore, felt that the passing of the law violated the rights of its members in favor of the employers of Belize.
This point was raised by Senators Louis Zabaneh, Elena Smith, Michel Chebat and Osmany Salas, who all claim to have been contacted by concerned employees regarding the bill. Senator Smith acted as champion and spokesperson for the union members and voiced the following concerns:
“The amendment here, … it doesn’t mean that the employer, in our view, must get any agreement from the employee. He may. If the employee doesn’t want, the employer will still do what he or she wants to do …. It is not to say, Mr. President, that there are not employers out there who would take the time to have a discussion with their employees, to share with them the situation and how together they could get over the situation. We understand what is going on right now. But we also know that there will be some who use this opportunity to their advantage. There’s nothing in this bill that speaks to bargaining agents. Which would be our union. So if these employees belong to a union, where do we fit in all of this?”
Senator Smith also expressed concerns over Section 131 of the amendment, which makes it possible for an employer to place employees on leave without pay if economic conditions of the employer have been affected. Employees are reportedly concerned about how it will be determined that the conditions facing the employer really do make such actions necessary, and who will verify these conditions if the employees are placed on leave, among other concerns.
In response, Peyrefitte suggested that the NTUCB get an attorney to look over the bill, as it would help them to see that these stipulations are in the best interest of both employers and employees, as they navigate through the economic crisis caused by COVID-19:
“I genuinely and respectfully suggest to the NTUCB, for whom the Senator makes representation for here, for them to get a lawyer to advise them on certain things because this bill to me, except with the omission of a comma that I see can be put there, is as clear as clear can be … and it can only change if the two sides agree. What can be better than that? With this amendment, Mr. President, no employer can take any step contemplated in this amendment without the employee agreeing,” said Peyrefitte.
Peyrefitte further asserted that these stipulations cannot even be brought forward by an employer unless there is a declaration of a State of Emergency or similar measures taken under any law to protect public health and public safety (i.e., an SI under the Quarantine Act).
Senator Payal Ghanwani supported Peyrefitte’s argument that this amendment is the only way to ensure that a compromise can be made between employers and employees that benefits both parties:
“I am certain that agreements currently exist under this section 131, but that law did not allow for it. This amendment now makes those agreements legitimate. It helps persons to stay employed … There’s nothing to bargain. It has to be a mutually agreed situation between the employer and the employee. The bargaining, there is no need for that; this is a contract between the employer and employee, who are both looking out for each other’s benefit,” Senator Ghanwani said.
The debates lasted over four hours, and all four bills were passed as law at the conclusion of the meeting.