BELMOPAN, Fri. Apr. 23, 2021– On the second day of the budget debates, a reinforced crowd of union members amassed on Independence Hill to engage in continued demonstrations, even while trying their best to adhere to social distancing protocols.
The unions brought out their drums, and a full Garifuna ensemble rocked the Capital city, as protestors sang and danced on the picket line.
“Well, our teachers have been waiting for this day for a while you know. They have been excited to be here, and now they are finally here and they are just showing that excitement in the midst of the message that we are sending across,” national president of the Belize National Teachers Union (BNTU), Elena Smith remarked.
That energy and emotion could be seen even in Smith herself, as she broke into dance on Independence Hill to the rhythm of the Garifuna drums and chants from demonstrators.
The iconic moment occurred on the heels of weeks of ongoing consultations and negotiations between the Joint Union team and the Government of Belize, with both parties playing hardball — both unrelenting in their position.
Last week the Belize Chamber and Commerce and Industry issued a press release in which it offered to act as a mediator to facilitate an end to the impasse.
The BNTU national president, in reference to that offer, said that while the process always is an option, its success hinges on the parties bending to the demands of each other, a prospect not in sight during the current impasse.
“Well, I mean a mediator is always an option, but at the end of the day, a mediator is only successful if the two parties agree. Cause the mediator doesn’t make the decision; it will be the two parties who decide, and if the Government is hell-bent and we are hell-bent, then what will the mediator do?” Smith said.
When pressed by the media on the detrimental effect of the unions’ acts of civil disobedience on this scale, she replied, “What is the actions [that] the Government is going to take against us? It’s detrimental as well. And so, we keep putting one group against the other, because we try to divide and conquer. This is not about one group, because whatever happens to us will impact our entire society; it will impact the business community, it will impact our students, it will impact our family members, it will impact the entire country. And so to be pitting one group against the other really and truly is just looking for sympathy.”
Also present at the protest, dressed in yellow, was president of the Public Service Union, Gerald Henry. He outlined that the unions are willing and ready to go into negotiations, but at the top of the list of priorities is the implementation of good governance legislation and reforms, and he claimed that the issue of salary cuts is now lower on the list.
“We would want to go into negotiations. We would want to see the government give us some solid commitment to implementing the UNCAC and other good governance legislation that we have been crying to them for from before they even took administration, before they even have elections. So, that is what this is all about; the 10% is all the way at the bottom of the list in terms of priority. The priority is the good governance legislation. Those are the priorities in this demonstration. If they implement those we will not have to come back here again,” Henry said.
When interviewed by the media, the Attorney General, Magali Marin Young, shared that her Ministry is understaffed and resourced and at this time virtually unable to implement all the good governance-related legislation in the timeline expected by the unions.
Elena Smith, however, said that they should have been prepared to hit the ground running with these reforms.
“We will be satisfied when we know that our demands are met. But until those are met, really and truly it does not matter what they are in terms of what it is we should feel and how we should feel. We are the ones feeling. We are the ones who know, and we understand that they may have some issues in terms of their personnel, but as I’ve said before, this party has been waiting for 13 years to get where they are right now. They should have been preparing. If you were serious about good governance, you could have been preparing from 13 years ago that when you got in you would have had something in place to be hitting the ground running,” Smith said.
The president of the NTUCB, Luke Martinez, said that they are pleased to be having good governance discussions in the public forum. He reiterated the unions’ resolve to continue their resistance until the demands of good governance reform are met.
“We could do it together, so the draconian idea to try to recuse this issue is not going to happen, it is not going to be beneficial for our economy, it’s not going to be beneficial in any way, shape, or form. The meaningful discussions have to continue. Meaningful consultations, consultations that will be respected,” Martinez said.
During his weekly address published late Sunday evening, the Prime Minister, Hon. John Briceno, told the public, “My government has spent the past few weeks in a consultation process with our governing partners. Yes, it has been tough consultation with much back and forth, proposals and counter-proposals. We are reminded of the balance and equilibrium required. We respect the 15 thousand plus persons that make up the public sector and mindful of the needs of our 420,000 citizens.”
On Monday the BNTU is expected to start its strike action countrywide. The PSU has not announced any other industrial action, but a work-to-rule order is still in effect. Their 21-day notice to the Government of Belize is expected to reach completion by the beginning of May. At that time, essential workers could join in protest action against the Government of Belize.