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Stevedores “holding it down,” as PBL flouts Tribunal’s order

HeadlineStevedores “holding it down,” as PBL flouts Tribunal’s order

Photo: Stevedores and CWU officials at press conference Tuesday, May 9, 2023 to discuss waterfront issues

CWU president: “We can’t have any stable societal fabric if the rule of law can be ignored based on how much money you have.”

BELIZE CITY, Thurs. May 11, 2023 

On January 27, 2022, the Essential Services Arbitration Tribunal handed down a decision regarding a complaint against the Port of Belize Ltd. (PBL) that the Christian Workers Union (CWU) on behalf of stevedores had remitted to the Minister responsible for Labour on July 13, 2021. The stevedores had, at that point, seen their income almost halved due to the transfer of sugar loading operations from the Port of Belize to the Big Creek Port, despite a Memorandum of Understanding signed years before that prohibited such a move, and oddly, the Port of Belize did not seek through legal means to prevent that costly shift of sugar-loading. The stevedores, who notably have faced challenges in accessing forms of financial safety in the workplace such as regular Social Security benefits, and who often face the possibility of loss of the ability to work due to the risky nature of what they do, sought to receive compensation from PBL for the reduction in their current and future income. And according to the ruling of the Tribunal, the compensation—the specific amount to be paid to the stevedores—was to be negotiated between PBL and the workers. The Tribunal promised to share the reasons for its ruling at a later date. Those were not provided in writing until March 30, 2022.

At a CWU press conference on Tuesday, May 9, 2023, the press received a copy of the 12-page order for the first time. Referencing the Tribunal’s decision, PBL, in a letter to CWU on May 4, 2023, stated that the order “… did not include any monetary award to the CWU. The Tribunal ordered that the parties engage in negotiations relating to any redundancy payment that may be due to stevedores for losses suffered as a result of the move of bulk sugar from PBL to Big Creek.” However, the actual decision at Section 44 (a) states in clear language, “the Tribunal directs that both the Christian Workers Union and the Port of Belize Limited forthwith engage in negotiations to determine the terms of payment of the Redundancy Package.”

The Settlement of Disputes in Essential Services Act, Chapter 298 of the Substantive Laws of Belize Revised Edition 2011, at Section 11 (6) speaks to the finality of a decision of the Tribunal. It states, “Any agreement, decision or award made by virtue of this section shall be binding on the employers and workers to whom the agreement, decision or award relates and, as from the date of such agreement, decision or award or as from such date as may be specified therein not being earlier than the date on which the dispute to which the agreement, decision or award relates first arose, it shall be an implied term of the contract between the employers and the workers to whom the agreement, decision or award relates that the rate of wages to be paid and the conditions of employment to be observed under the contract shall be in accordance with such agreement, decision or award until varied by a subsequent agreement, decision or award.” Over 15 months have elapsed since the Tribunal handed down its order on January 27, 2022  

CWU president Evan “Mose” Hyde on Tuesday, May 9, told the press that as the months went by, the stevedores’ patience started running out, as PBL had not even come to the table to begin negotiating a payment. Hyde says they therefore requested a meeting with the regulatory authority, the Minister of Labour, to whom they said, “… temperature on the waterfront is going high. They want to know when this is going to manifest itself because we have written to PBL and they have said to us ‘we are not going to negotiate.’ We did not go in front of PBL and throw stones, bricks, or tried to break entrance. We did not riot; we did not protest … that’s responsible action on the part of our members and our team.”

After not receiving a response from the regulator, Hyde says stevedores chose the most available way to demonstrate their dissatisfaction—by returning to the hours of work as stipulated in their CBA of August 2020. Hyde affirmed that if the shoe was on the other foot—that is, if it had been the stevedores, and not the Ashcroft-affiliated PBL, who were acting in violation of a Tribunal ruling, “… they [the regulator] would make sure that our membership is acting in compliance with that ruling and with the law.” He later emphasized, “We can’t have any stable societal fabric if the rule of law can be ignored based on how much money you have.” He added, “You have to have accountability when this entity has ruled. What are employees to do if we are supposed to then just disregard the Essential Services Act, disregard the Tribunal, because you only have teeth when we lose? But when they lose, we can’t touch them. And that’s a problem. That’s a recipe for chaos.”

In a May 5, 2023 press release, PBL suggested that the CWU has tied the 2-gang rotation with the payment for sugar redundancy despite “having a mechanism to address their grievance.” The company maintains that the hours of work and redundancy package are two different things, and has pointed to the fact that no stevedore was made redundant. Furthermore, PBL claims that the issue “continues to be discussed via tripartite discussions with the Ministry of Labour,” and that, while the Labour Department “recommended returning to the Essential Services Tribunal in order to conclude this matter,” that was “shot down by the CWU.” Notably, the Arbitration Tribunal’s order actually addresses the issue of no stevedores having been made redundant when loading operations for bulk sugar exports was transferred from the Belize City harbour to the Port of Big Creek. The Tribunal’s Chairman, William A. Lindo, Jr., wrote that in its rebuttal submissions made on January 25, 2022, PBL, represented by Jose Alpuche, curiously shifted its argument and invoked the Labour Act regarding when an employee becomes entitled to severance pay. However, the Tribunal in its ruling pointed out that those provisions had no place in the determination of the issue since PBL itself had submitted evidence that no stevedore was made redundant or was terminated, but had signed an agreement on March 6, 2020 as a result of ongoing strike action, at the time agreeing to payment.

The March 6, 2020 document in its firstparagraph states, “A Redundancy Package for the Stevedores who have been involved in loading and unloading raw sugar will be negotiated and implemented to come into effect in the event ASR/BSI makes a decision to permanently move its shipping of bulk sugar to Big Creek after this 2019 season. In this regard,

a. Within twenty-one (21) days, a Memorandum of Understanding between PBL and CWU on the Redundancy Package for Stevedores will be signed;

b. Within sixty (60) days, a fleshed-out agreement on the Redundancy Package will be signed by PBL and CWU.”

The Tribunal’s order then states that on March 19, 2020, the parties entered into a Negotiating Framework to the MOU on the Redundancy Package. According to the order, PBL, in its counter-submissions to CWU, recognized both of those agreements between the parties.

Hyde, on Tuesday, May 9, refuted the suggestion by PBL that there are any ongoing tripartite discussions with the Ministry of Labour regarding the redundancy package. He clarified that at a meeting on the morning of Friday, May 5, the parties sat with Labour officials for 40 minutes – at most – and, apart from stating their positions, all they were told was that a yes or no vote was required from stevedores regarding the hours of work matter. They were to resume discussions at 1:00 p.m. that day, but PBL did not show up, citing their need to consult with their attorneys as the purported reason for their absence.

Up to the time of that interview Tuesday, May 9, Hyde said, “not only have we not had any sense of when we are going to dialogue again, but there’s been nothing – crickets. Crickets coming out of the regulatory body. Crickets coming from the other side.”

Hyde affirms that a return to the Tribunal to conclude the redundancy package matter would be like rearguing the issue and reconstituting the Tribunal, “to essentially play two times” (thus giving PBL a chance at a ‘do-over’), when there is nothing to clarify. Hyde explained that even though PBL allowed container Gang # 5 to work the MV Aries on Monday, May 8, they don’t know what the client will do next, because they are “unable to say to the client anything other than, ‘we are going to work according to our CBA because we have not been able to get compliance with the rule of law’.”

Hyde urged the regulator to step in – as it has done in the past—and proactively seek out conversations between the two sides, as the matter is urgent and the Ministry of Labour has certain responsibilities, since the Tribunal falls under their umbrella.

Marlon Middleton, the Chief Union Representative for stevedores, was brought to tears when he spoke about how they are being financially impacted. He explained that they are unable to meet loan payments, as their earnings have been greatly reduced due to bulk sugar operations going south. He said that while some may hold the view that stevedores are only fighting for money all the time, “it’s money we deserve.” Middleton indicated, “You see me with tears in my eyes this morning because I am tired of being pushed around. But I am not afraid of crying on the media because we are tired of it.”

Today, Thursday, May 11, almost a week after the last meeting, the Ministry of Labour brought the parties together again. The meeting at the Biltmore Plaza Hotel in Belize City lasted just over two hours and saw representatives from both sides emerge periodically to confer among themselves. When the meeting ended, Hyde called it a good sign that they were able to sit down again. He could not share much as all parties agreed to curtail their comments to the press. Hyde did indicate that a timeline was “given for certain responses to happen and we look forward to coming back around the table very soon.” The Union also scheduled meetings with the Belize Port Authority for today and the Belize Chamber of Commerce and Industry for Friday, May 12. Importantly, Hyde today notified that they will continue to abide by the hours of work in the CBA, that is, one-gang, one ship – until further notice.

For today’s meeting, the Minister of Labour, Hon. Oscar Requena himself showed up along with his CEO, Valentino Shal. Requena refuted the characterization that they have not been engaged with this matter. He said they have been speaking to both sides and brought both sides to the table last week and today.

Accused, as the regulator, of allowing PBL to flout the Tribunal’s ruling, the Minister responded, “the matter of enforcement is not a matter for the Ministry of Labour. The matter of enforcement is a matter for the High Court. So if you have an aggrieved party who is not happy in terms of how the ruling is being complied with, then they have an obligation to take the matter to the High Court for enforcement.” Pressed about PBL as a corporate citizen who also did not appeal the Tribunal’s ruling, the Minister declared, “the ruling of the Essential Services Tribunal was very clear that both sides must come to the table and engage in negotiations.” Providing some more insight about today’s meeting, Requena added that CWU presented its proposal again and PBL agreed to look at it within a certain timeline.

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