Barrow administration sends Dr. Carla Barnett in to mediate
BELIZE CITY, Thurs. Oct. 4, 2018– In the wake of a 21-day notice for industrial action against the Port of Belize Limited (PBL) that the Christian Workers Union (CWU) served on September 28 on behalf of stevedores employed by PBL, there has been a feverish attempt on the part of the Government of Belize to find an end to the labor impasse. Minister of State in the Ministry of Labor, Dr. Carla Barnett, and the Acting Labor Commissioner, Mrs. Paulette Wagner, have brokered a series of meetings between the two parties — the CWU and the Port of Belize Limited, represented by its Chief Executive Officer, Arturo “Tux” Vasquez. More meetings between the parties are scheduled for tomorrow, Friday.
Dr. Carla Barnett, in a text message, said today, “she had two meetings yesterday, one with the CWU and one with the Port of Belize, and today, she had another two meetings with the two sides.
“I believe we reached a point where they will be able to come back to the table. One meeting tomorrow morning with the two sides, it feels positive to me – through shuttle diplomacy we feel we have worked it through. We will solve it by tomorrow morning – we will do a proper media briefing at the Labor office on Albert Street.”
At a media briefing this afternoon, CWU President, Evan “Mose” Hyde, was asked what did the intervention of the Minister of State in the Ministry of Labor and the Acting Labor Commissioner contribute to ending the impasse between the stevedores and the Port of Belize.
Hyde explained that they had met with Minister Barnett and her Chief Executive Officer, Mrs. Sharon Ramclam-Young, and the Acting Labor Commissioner twice — yesterday afternoon and this morning. “They met with the Port of Belize negotiating team after they met with us yesterday evening. I believe that they are meeting again this afternoon,” Hyde said.
He said the first meeting with Minister Barnett was basically a fact-finding mission where she asked for an outline of how things had reached this level of confrontation.
“After meeting with them, she (Dr. Barnett) came to us this morning advancing ways forward to see if we can work this out,” he said, adding, “what I can say now, because we cannot get into a lot of details, we are still on our 21-day plan. We have not taken it off.”
Hyde said, however, that “being a responsible negotiating team and union we are participating fully with the intervention coming from the Ministry of Labor.” He explained that while the two sides have diametrically opposing views on the matter of hours of work for the stevedores, that there are other items for the sides to negotiate on, “and we have repeatedly asked for us to proceed onto those.” Hyde said that the Port of Belize side has been adamant in not doing that.
“We have been told that they seem to have moved away from that position and might be willing to come back to negotiations. We have indicated to the Minister that we are willing to go back to the negotiating table but we want to speak about remunerations for our members, while the Ministry of Labor has told us that they have asked the Solicitor General to give a legal opinion on the matter of the hours of work proposal,” he said.
Mose added, “As you know, the Port of Belize is looking at a particular labor law as it speaks to the need for rest, and are using it to say that they cannot continue with the way that stevedores have made their money from time immemorial.”
He explained that they have presented their position to the Minister of Labor, and the Minister has indicated that sometime next week a legal opinion will be given them.
“Similarly we are tasked with having a legal opinion of our own,” Hyde pointed out. “The matter of the hours of work has been placed to some extent in the refrigerator. We can basically come to together on it when the Ministry has its position; right now it does not.”
CWU officials are hoping the PBL respects their rights to seek out the best possible deal for their members.
The CWU President was asked to explain the dispute over the work hours.
“The stevedores don’t work the way the traditional workers do,” Hyde said. “There is one particular ship that the stevedores get to work every eight weeks for extended periods of time, which earns them production bonus and overtime. This is the gravy ship, This is the rice and beans ship. It has fed their families; it has clothed their families; and it has sent their children to school. So when you come and say you cannot work those hours anymore, you are proposing something that anybody in the shoes of the stevedores would be immediately apprehensive about and it would create tremendous trepidation.”
Hyde describes this as a fundamental change, and that in the union’s view the law is not written to prevent workers from taking home revenues. “The law is written so as to protect workers from employers who would want to abuse them. This is the ship that they depend on for their financial stability. I don’t know any worker that would sign on a dotted line for that financial stability to be jeopardized,”
Hyde said that the stevedores have been reasonable, but the only leverage that the stevedores have right now is to say listen, we will stop work, because you are not hearing us.
The newspaper also asked the BPL CEO Vasquez where the matters of the negotiation stood with the CWU. Vasquez said that they are meeting with the Ministry of Labor which has gotten involved.
“The Minister of Labor is trying to mediate the situation between the two of us to bring us back to the negotiating table,” Vasquez offered.
Vasquez explained that since 2012 the CWU has changed four presidents and “of course if you are in a negotiation it disrupts the continuity, because a new negotiating team takes over.” “So we have lost about two years because of that,” Vasquez said.
Amandala asked Vasquez how optimistic he is that the present rounds of negotiations will resolve matters between the stevedores and the Port of Belize.
“Í’m optimistic about it. I think that the meetings with Dr. Carla Barnett have been helpful. The matter of the legality of the hours of work is a labor matter and that has to be dealt with by the Ministry of Labor.”
We asked Vasquez when was the last time the Belize Port Limited and the CWU had a Collective Bargaining Agreement. Vasquez replied that they have never had a Collective Bargaining Agreement. “There is one with the staff, but none with the stevedores.”
We also spoke to a past President of the CWU, the attorney Audrey Matura. We asked Matura if she agrees with Vasquez’s position that the changes in leadership have affected the negotiations with the Belize Port Limited. Matura said that changes in leadership are good, because if your leaders stay in a position too long, then they become complacent and even corrupt.
“So I don’t agree with Mr. Vasquez’s position. It does not matter how often the union changes leaders; the stevedores will always be there, no matter who the leader is. In my own experience there was not good faith at the port in its dealing with the stevedores,” Matua remarked.
Matura pointed out that the receivership which manages the Port of Belize Limited has not been accountable. “Up to today they have not accounted for moneys that they are making. And they refuse to increase anything for the stevedores. I don’t think it’s a fair position he has taken.”
We asked Matura to comment on her experience with the BPL and what is happening now in the present standoff.
“I don’t see it going well. If these stevedores are tired of years waiting for a pension, it is going to get volatile. Stevedoring hours are long, hard work, so I don’t see who will give in.”
Matura expressed the opinion that the port being in receivership is something that should have been followed up, because Vasquez is only operating on behalf of Lord Michael Ashcroft, and the government has passed laws to facilitate Ashcroft’s interests.