BELIZE CITY, Thurs. July 22, 2021– It has been a year since the unceremonious firing of 35 PBL (Port of Belize Ltd.) workers via WhatsApp by that company’s management, which was followed by a demonstration by members of the Christian Workers Union (CWU), who were fired upon with rubber bullets by members of the GSU — a disturbing episode that prompted many to question which invisible hand had directed that such aggression be shown to unarmed workers. Yet, one year later, the very issues that prompted that demonstration which was so forcefully squelched have still not been addressed. The claims of those workers who were fired via WhatsApp based on the Port of Belize Limited’s assertions about reductions in its profits (without showing any financial records to prove such claims) were to be addressed by a Labour Complaints Tribunal. When interviewed recently, the president of the Christian Workers Union, Evan “Mose” Hyde, explained that the Labour Tribunal will finally be hearing the case in early August.
But Hyde pointed out that the passing of a year has reduced the likelihood that the members of the union will be able to access from their memory a thorough, detailed recollection of all that transpired at the time that the firings took place. Over time, he pointed out, the vividness of their recollections, as well as the vigor and passion with which they could express their responses to all that transpired, have diminished. Hyde explained, “When you allow so much time to go, so much is lost; because as good as our memories are, when it’s time for all members to go and testify and in front of a tribunal they will not be as good in August of 2021 as they would have been in August or September of 2020. In so far as being able to describe all the things that were going on that compound leading up to their rude termination.”
Hyde commented that the one-year anniversary this month of the mass PBL firings and the subsequent strike has driven home to him in a poignant way how unjust the government has been, in delaying a mechanism that was very well-needed and important to the laborers of Belize. He pointed to the failure over the past few years to enact the legislation that was passed for the formation of such a tribunal, which should provide an average worker access to legal hearings without that worker having to incur high legal fees or enduring a long wait in a queue, in oder for a court hearing date to be set.
Hyde noted that for almost a decade members of the Christian Workers Union have been subject to unjust layoffs, with no mechanism in place for them to be heard. He said that after the groundwork had been laid for the formation of a tribunal to provide workers with some legal way of addressing possible wrongs done to them, there was an extended delay before the tribunal actually began its operation. He said that when he spoke to the previous Labor Commissioner, he was told that a primary reason for the holdup was the absence of a suitable attorney on the tribunal. “[The victims] wanted to get that moment to tell their stories. It’s not there. Their cases will be heard. Yes, we will eventually get our matters put before that tribunal, but the injustice has already been done, the insult has already been served. You can’t undo that kind of damage; it cannot be undone,” he said.
The pushback of the hearing of the fired PBL workers’ case until August, despite the scheduled opening of the Labor Complaints Tribunal next week, is primarily the result of complaints being made by stakeholders of the Port of Belize Limited about conflicts of interest. Their first objection is that the chair of the tribunal is the attorney who prepared the arguments on behalf of the CWU last year— attorney Anthony Sylvester. Secondly, they objected to the presence of the then treasurer of the Christian Workers Union on the tribunal as a representative of Labour interests. Hyde contrasted the vigor of the PBL’s objections to the constitution of the tribunal with their lifeless response to ASR/BSI’s transfer of its sugar-loading operations to Big Creek, in apparent violation of an MOU that had been signed by the Government of Belize and the enterprise which owns that port — thus making the move possibly illegal. The response is uncharacteristic of the ultimate owner of the interests controlling the PBL, Lord Michael Ashcroft, who over the past decade has been rabid in pursuing every legal claim against GOB for every perceived slight — costing the government and people of Belize hundreds of millions of dollars. The peculiar lack of response of PBL to ASR’ s move thus leads to many, many questions, Hyde noted.
In reference to Prime Minister Briceño’s claims that the CWU was well aware of the move to the Big Creek Port, hence its negotiation.of a redundancy package, Hyde said that is not the case. Rather he said that the CWU was conscious that they could not depend on GoB to protect their interests — even though over a hundred families on Belize’s Southside would be severely affected when the stevedores’ earnings are cut in half, so the union had to ensure that an insurance policy was in place. “There is no redundancy package that can come near to what it is you lose when your earnings are cut in half for the remainder of your professional life and anybody that was going to be next in line to be a stevedore will never know what it is to earn what stevedores have earned for generations,” he said. Hyde noted that some stevedores’ income will be reduced by as much as 57% as a result of the ASR move.