BELIZE CITY, Mon. Apr. 26, 2021– Today marked the first day of strike action by the Belize National Teachers Union (BNTU). Teachers countrywide staged a walkout from classes at 11:30 a.m. today, just after delivering the morning lessons. They later gathered at the Marion Jones Sports Complex, where they began a cavalcade through the streets of Belize City.
The union members walked in three lines in single file, and although the gathering seemed to have not been fully in line with Covid-19 protocol, strong police presence could be seen on the ground, with one police vehicle leading the march through the city streets.
“This signifies the beginning of a start to however long it will take us to get what it is that we want,” national president of the BNTU, Elena Smith, told local media.
She stated that the union will continue this strike action for as long as the Briceño administration continues to refuse to concede to their demands.
At the close of the 2021-2022 budget debate, the Prime Minister, Hon. John Briceño, asked the BNTU to call off its strike action and present a list of timelines for the implementation of some good governance legislation.
Smith said, “The BNTU right now is calling on the Prime Minister to remove his 10 off the table. We are also calling on the 6 months, that 8 months, that whatever it is that they are saying to implement these good governance issues. So, if we want to call off, let’s call off. You want to tell me go back, then you move back as well.”
While the initial impasse between the government and the unions stemmed from the proposed salary cuts tabled by PM Briceño on March 15, the unions have since shifted the theme of the discourse from solely pay cuts to the wider issue of good governance reform.
This call has been a constant one for the BNTU and other unions for years. The 11-day strike action in 2016 led to the signing of the UNCAC by the Barrow administration. The unions are now looking for activation of that Convention. This can only be done by implementing specific laws and policies to put an added check on the government and its officials.
These laws, such as the Whistleblowers Act, the unjust enrichment and asset recovery legislation, and campaign financing laws are among a handful of laws that need to be enacted to start the process of finally activating the UNCAC in Belize.
There has been a lag in the process of enacting these laws, and now the Attorney General, Hon. Magali Marin Young, has said that a lack of legal drafters may lead to further delays.
The president of the BNTU, however, has said that the present Government should have been prepared years ago, since they were the Opposition for thirteen years, and she said that if they had been serious about carrying out good government reform they should have hit the ground running with the implementation of these laws.
She is now calling on the government to come back to the table with concrete solutions, or the strike will continue.
When asked if anything can be done in the short term to quell the unions, Smith said, “If you mean the short term as in today or tomorrow, tell them to come to the table, bring some concrete solutions to the issues that we are having right now, come to us seriously, bring the draft to us, and then we can talk.”
The 2021-2022 budget will go to the Senate on Wednesday when the Senate will do the final passing of the budget and finalize the salary cuts and increment freeze for this year. Smith was asked how far the teachers would go to advance their cause. She allowed the members of the union to answer. The response was a resounding, “All the Way!”
Smith could not share much of what was planned by the teachers for this week of strike, but emphasized that they will continue to press for their demands — for the full implementation of the good governance law and ultimately the UNCAC, and a demand that the now fast-tracked 10% salary cuts be revisited.
“As we’ve said before, we have always been a union that has stood out against corruption, and we are fighting for country now, not just for us, but for country, and we are saying this time as we have done before, that this is not just about the 10, this is about country. So the 10 is on the table, the 10 is important to us, but good governance is also important to us, because without that…if we had that we wouldn’t be where we are today,” she said.
Smith remarked that it should be possible to implement some of the good governance legislation and measures right away, such as the Whistleblowers Act, the unjust enrichment and asset recovery act, and campaign financing laws.
She shared that the union leadership will meet later on Monday to complete charting their course of action for the remainder of the week.