BELIZE CITY, Thurs. Jan. 20, 2022– The Port of Belize (PBL) and unionized waterfront workers of the Christian Workers Union (CWU) are once again facing off, following PBL’s refusal to provide compensation to stevedores for loss of earnings due to the transfer to the Big Creek Port of sugar-loading operations as well as its recent rejections of recommendations that were formulated during a meeting held yesterday between the general foremen of the Port and the CWU. According to a letter dated Wednesday, January 19, the CWU told PBL that it was recommending that Raymond Rivers and Sean Middleton serve as crane operators for Gangs 4 and 7 respectively.
The two new General Foremen, David Welch, and Wilfred Faber, handed down the selection, which was sent to the PBL who, according to CWU president Evan “Mose” Hyde, disregarded the correspondence before rejecting the selection made by the most senior waterfront workers. A written response from PBL states, “As it relates to Winchmen for Gang 4 and Gang 7, PBL will not be hiring or re-hiring any persons. Both persons mentioned resigned at their own will and PBL accepted those resignations; that process is final and closed.”
The PBL also rejected the recommendation that two substitutes be added to the work force following the passing of one of the former members of one gang and the migration of another to another country. The CWU in their correspondence recommended that Tyrin Faber and Cardinal Welch act as substitutes, but PBL has taken the position that it will not hire any new substitutes until a Secondary Substitutes agreement is signed between the parties.
The stevedores, already weighed down by months of fruitless negotiations to secure a compensation package following the transfer of sugar-loading operations to the Big Creek Port, are at a breaking point and find the PBL position to be unreasonable, especially given their efforts to refrain from any physical industrial action. Hyde shared that in November 2021 the membership voted to engage in industrial action, and now, after the results achieved by the cane farmers in Orange Walk who staged a blockade of trucks outside of ASR/BSI’s compound to force the company to extend the deadline on an interim agreement, are convinced that physical action is the best course to bring results.
“It’s important to just remind that this is happening with the background of very tense relationships, a very strained relationship, and so, we cannot understand and we have written in response to the Port because they have told us now that they are rejecting that. We have simply said that we don’t understand why, all things concerned, you would be so inflexible with this, because it’s not a position from CWU or myself or even the negotiating team for that matter. This is a position coming from the real shot-callers of the stevedore workforce, the general foreman, and this is a position that they have put and the recommendations are based on safety and performance, because they are the ones out there, so we don’t really understand why they would want to pick a fight when we understand that we are already on the edge of a cliff. “ Hyde told the media today.
He explained that both Raymond Rivers and Sean Middleton are experienced crane drivers, a very important process at the port that requires experience to ensure safety and peace of mind among workers. It must be noted that Rivers was a key player on the negotiation team and has been actively supporting the plight of his colleagues on the waterfront.
Hyde has said that the unions have been refraining from engaging in industrial action since November last year when there was an impasse in their efforts to secure a compensation package after GoB allowed ASR/BSI to transfer its loading operations to Big Creek, despite the presence of a memorandum that indicated that PBL should have been compensated for such a transfer, They have since met the Prime Minister, to no avail.
“We have been in that holding pattern since then, so our position of writing this letter is just we met without general foremen. They instruct us, and so this is a position that they have brought to us, we put it to you, and then your position is first to ignore it, and then on top of that when the matter flares up, as we knew it would, if you understand the emotion, I mean, we are constantly getting our members asking us, when are we going to do something. They are of the view right now that, if you don’t make noise, you don’t get heard. Nobody studies your situation, everybody feels that you are good, everything is good, so when they saw how matters kind of resolved up north, they were like, ‘well, we’ll draw for the fire’. We have said ‘listen; we are working the process’.” Hyde said.
He further remarked that PBL is picking a fight in the middle of a strained relationship with the stevedores and added that skilled waterfront workers oftentimes leave their post and return to the gangs without any issue. At this time, on the matter of the sugar compensation package, Hyde said that those negotiations have failed thus far, since PBL is refusing to agree to pay the $5-million-dollar compensation package. Hyde said that in fact, PBL has approached the CWU membership with disgraceful proposals.
“Our initial proposal to them was we wanted 5 million dollars. The Port, their first thing is, ‘we don’t have anything to give you’. They then subsequently made a very unusual proposal to our members which was really aggravating. Included in their proposal was a request for us to cut gangs, and can you imagine that what was suggested to them was if you cut gangs, and you get rid of about 28 or 30 stevedores then the rest of you who are there will work more often and so you will make more money, and that is our compensation for you because sugar went. Just imagine that that was written to us, that was really like a low blow,” Hyde explained.
He added that the PBL also proposed to give the members their own retirement savings. “That money is theirs, so they were suggesting or they were proposing that the compensation to our members be the very retirement savings that they had earned.”
The removal of sugar ships from the PBL has caused substantial losses for stevedores, many losing almost 20 % of their earnings and others losing up to 40% of typical earnings. On the matter of whether or not the Prime Minister and new Minister of Public Utilities and Logistics should intervene, Hyde said that it is a matter of duty.
“In our view of it, this is a matter of duty when you have your primary export facility having this kind of industrial relations exists with the primary workforce, that is a matter of national priority to see that stabilized and resolved, that’s a duty. That’s a part of your job description. You cannot forget about it. You cannot ignore it, you cannot dismiss it. You have to actively stay with that until that is resolved,” Hyde stated.