Editorial — 21 August 2019
The unions can give Belize economic independence too

It is the favorite pastime of the Prime Minister, especially, and other elite members of the governing UDP too, to point the finger at the Opposition PUP and holler at them that they were corrupt when they held the reins of government. The Prime Minister is relentless in persecuting the PUP for their past sins. He has either never read the Gospels, or, if he has, he didn’t learn anything from them. This UDP is no relative of Esquivel (former Prime Minister, Hon. Manuel Esquivel), and the present Prime Minister keeps hurling mud as if he and his party are as pure as when they left government in 1998.

It may appear that the older area representatives of the PUP have read the Bible, and understand the part of it that pertains to casting stones, so they have been wary to return fire, but their representatives who have never had the opportunity to sin are slinging back, and this has resulted in a lot of mud flying across the aisles at House meetings. There’s so much mud being produced in the House these days, that if it were manna and it escaped out of the doors, there’d be no hunger in our country.

Mud is not manna. Our manna, the nation’s wealth, is under the control of the Central Bank. The party in power controls the national treasury, and that has been flush at times with funds from foreign loans, the PAYE, the business tax, and the oil royalties and tax, but it is clear that those resources are not being deployed efficiently.

The leaders of the People’s Committee rode the backs of the labor unions, primarily the General Workers Union (GWU), to political power and eventually independence, but those political leaders have not been able to, or did not care to, take the people into economic independence. Their eyes got large when they got control over what our colonial bosses had presided over: they became greedy. Political independence for us simply meant changing one set of lords, foreigners, for another set of lords, locally-bred.

A few children of the native Maya and the slaves from Africa have made it to the Promised Land, but there has been little joy for the masses. It is about, no, it is past time that they get theirs. We just cannot continue on this road with so many dead ends.

In 1919 our soldiers rose up and demanded a greater share in the resources of the country after they returned from the battlefields in Europe where they had gone to defend the King of England and his allies. They were denied.

In 1934, Antonio Soberanis, the leader of the LUA (Labour and Unemployed Association), led the struggles of Belize’s workers for greater wages.

A number of heroes in the 1940s, 1950s, continuing into the 1960s, led workers in battles for better wages and working conditions in the citrus and sugar industries, and for benefits from the giant BEC (Belize Estate and Company).

The unions were able to make small gains for workers, but the big victors were the political leaders who were involved in union leadership. Those leaders became the government ministers who would take Belize to independence in 1981, and beyond. Those government ministers were to lead us to economic independence; they haven’t.

The labor unions after political independence in 1981, and by the later 1980s, were a shadow of their former selves on Belize’s landscape. Where they left off, the public sector unions, namely the PSU (Public Service Union) and the BNTU (Belize National Teachers Union), picked up the baton.

The PSU had covered itself in glory during the 1981 resistance against the Heads of Agreement, and they were able, in the early 1990s, to win substantial increases in wages and benefits for public servants. The BNTU has also covered itself in glory. Apart from winning better wages and benefits for their members, they were the ones to apply the pressure that made the government honor promises it had made, and agree to sign on to the United Nations body that works to stomp out their (government) corruption.

In 2019, those wage increases have all been erased, however: gobbled up by taxation on goods, increases in the cost of essential services – telephone, electricity, and water – and general inflation. Those in upper management are keeping their heads above water, but all others in the ranks of the public service, and teaching ranks, and all other workers too, are going under.

These are not good times for the masses of Belizean workers. They cannot make ends meet with the wages they are earning. Our youth see their parents struggling, and not making it, and they wonder if there is any use in their trying. This has been going on it seems forever, and the hopelessness increases with every generation.  Many of our youth of today have lost all hope of a future in our country.

The politicians have proven that they cannot or do not care to save the people, and at this time we are desperately in need of a savior. It will take resources for a savior to do what our governments haven’t done. There is only one group here that has that kind of capital. Only the unions have the resources to take the bull by the horns and turn it around, so that the bull is pulling in the service of the people.

The unions have the resources in their pensions, Social Security, dues; and one union, the PSU, also has a nest egg under their control, from the BTL shares. Expertise, both technical and managerial, resides in retirees and within their present ranks.

It is time for the unions to take more control of our future. This time, they must strike for more than better wages and workplace conditions, and against corruption. This time they must strike for greater ownership of the national pie. It begins with expanding their vision, discussing their programs, and throwing their immense forces into gear.

The unions must increase membership. If you are a public servant, a teacher, a blue collar worker in any of the utilities that have unions, and you are not a member of your union, your head is in the sand. The unions must identify areas where they can do business. Unions have talked about setting up grocery stores for union members, but they must go way beyond that.

Belizean farmers can competitively produce green beans, Irish potatoes (in season), onions (in season), tomatoes (in season), sweet potatoes, coco yam, plantains, mangoes, papaya, coconuts, peas, beef, pork, chicken, and many other products. If farmers have a larger market their cost of production will go down.

One of the constraints to the canning of food in Belize is the small size of our population and the stiff competition we face from imported goods. Our unions, if they organize, mobilize, they have a captive market that could well exceed a third of our population.  They can open a cannery. They can process our vegetables and fruits and sell to local shops, and export to countries in Central America and the Caribbean.

Belize will soon be growing hemp, and some of that product can be utilized at home, woven into cloth and other goods. The unions can set up a factory to weave cloth from hemp, and they can set up factories where workers will stitch the pieces of cloth together to make clothing and other goods.

The unions, if they stand together, have a guaranteed market for their goods. The local merchants can buy imported goods, but they will also buy and sell goods made in factories in Belize that are owned by our unions.

There are other opportunities out there for our unions that they can grasp for the good of our nation. They can purchase shares in CPBL and steer that business into the processing of other goods. It is on the backs of the unions that Belize rode to political independence. It is past time that we moved on to economic independence. It is on the backs of the unions that we can get to that Promised Land.

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Deshawn Swasey

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