BELMOPAN, Thurs. Apr. 22, 2021– The first day of budget debates for the fiscal year 2021-2022 began today amid a deadlock between the Briceño administration and the public sector unions.
Members of the Belize National Teachers Union, the Public Service Union, the Nurses Association of Belize, and the National Trade Union Congress of Belize gathered near the periphery of the National Assembly Building to protest the government-proposed salary cuts and increment freezes and to make a firm, loud call for the implementation of the UNCAC and other good governance reforms.
While the parliamentarians debated the austerity budget inside the National Assembly building, the modest group of protesters positioned themselves on the steps outside, practicing social distancing and mask-wearing under the watchful eyes of police officers on the ground.
This did not stop them from echoing chants that called for the end of corruption in government — chants which reverberated even inside the National Assembly.
The president of the NTUCB, Luke Martinez, granted the media an interview, during which he shared that the unified stance of the unions should send a clear message to the administration of the day: “corruption must be put to an end.”
He further stated that the position they are taking is being expressed through peaceful protest and is necessary for nation-building.
“This is a nationalistic movement, nation-building; this is what nation-building is about. We must fight corruption. We are here to defend our property, we are defending our territory, that the 10%, we are defending our wages and we will defend it to the end. It is important for these good governance issues to be implemented. It’s going to save the country millions of dollars.” Martinez said during the interview.
He said that the unions had expected that by now the Government of Belize would have stopped the waste of public finances and ended some of the outright corrupt practices in government. The members of the unions were out in numbers as large as could have been permitted, given the Covid-19 regulations. Martinez outlined that the support from across the workers groups has been tremendous.
“There is a lot of support. The numbers that you see here, absolutely the restriction with the SI. Of course, we are in a pandemic, we have to be responsible people, public officers, teachers, APSSM, we are civil people. Remember we are civil servants and so we understand that we cannot be out here by the hundreds and the thousands. You have seen the unions out here before by the hundreds and the thousands when there is not a pandemic,” Martinez said.
He remarked that the removal of 80 million dollars from the economy would be “tantamount to criminal” and expressed the hope that the parties can still come to the table to find the best possible remedy for the country’s economic woes. He then added that the Ministry of the Public Service is within its right to invoke section 106(3) of the Constitution, which gives them the power to fix salaries, but noted that while they may believe that the unions lack funds to take a challenge to the court, they are prepared to challenge the decision in the court of public opinion.
“If it is, they believe that they have received the strongest interpretation from the Attorney General’s Ministry and they believe that the union doesn’t have the financial resources to challenge them in the courts, we are prepared to challenge them in the court of public opinion also, and we sure that the Belizean people are not going to let us down,” he said.
He further said that illicit enrichment legislation has to reach all corners of Government, including the public officers who have enriched themselves by facilitating corrupt practices in government.
“The truth is that a lot of public officers are also involved in the pilfering of government resources. Some of us are unable to explain our wealth. We have very wealthy public officers, and some of them work hand in hand with some of these unjustifiable actions that occur in this country,” Martinez highlighted.
The Belize Chamber of Commerce and Industry (BCCI) released a statement this morning in which it urged the government and unions to go back to the negotiation table in good faith to find a solution. They even offered to act as mediators if needs be.
The NTUCB president remarked that it is a pity that the government is not seeing the added economic effects of the impasse.
“It’s a pity the government is failing to realize that the longer we stay in this deadlock, it is going to have an effect on the economy, if we decide that we are going to shut down this country, it is going to cost the government, more than the 80 million dollars that they are trying to get from us,” Martinez warned.
He shared that they will not let up in their resistance and demand for good governance reform until the discussions take place and legislation is enacted.
“We are going to continue to insist on the good governance discussion. We are not going to move away from the good governance discussion, and if it is that we are going to shut down this country to ensure that the good governance discussions are materialized…that is what is going to happen,” vowed Martinez.
Late this evening GOB release a Cabinet brief which outlined,” The Minister of the Public Service, Constitutional and Political Reform informed Cabinet that he would fix the salaries of public officers having regard to the deteriorated state of public finances and the views and suggestions raised by the Joint Unions.” The Cabinet brief stated.
The Briceno administration is adamant that they will stick to the proposal set forward March 30th letter but have now offered a grant a land credit to those public officers affected by the cuts.
The brief went on to state, “complementing the decision of the Minister of the Public Service, Constitutional and Political Reform, Cabinet decided that it would take such steps as necessary to grant a land credit in favour of the affected public officers equivalent to 50% of the salary adjustment, which credit may be exercisable on the acquisition of land from the government. Cabinet remains committed to the points set out in its letter of 30th March 2021. “