In a week when Belize is still reeling from the loss of four soldiers in circumstances that are not yet clear, a week of unabated violence in the streets and other tragedies, a week when Belize worries about what kind of budget the government will present in these very difficult times and frets about Covid-19, Belize’s workers must keep their focus so that opportunities don’t pass them by.
Labor had been losing ground in Belize for years, but in the 1980’s Belize’s different governments threw off any cover of being cozy with the working class.
In 1984, a Belize government privatized the banana industry, sold substantial shares in the publicly owned telecommunications company to rich foreigners, and started an economic citizenship program to encourage people who were far wealthier than most Belizeans to set up shop here. The privatization continued with successive governments selling more economic citizenships, privatizing water and electricity, and selling controlling shares in the telecommunications company to Lord Michael Ashcroft, a British billionaire.
Belize has been following the path of the trickle-down-economics form of capitalism for decades, and if we look at the state of the nation, our increasing poverty rate, our increasing unemployment and underemployment rate, the escalating violence in the streets, we have to conclude that our economic system has not been delivering for the regular man and woman. The question for Belize is: will we seize the moment and make the shift and support the labor movement to ensure that our workers are not denied their rightful share of the fruits of our economy?
Looking at the impasse between the Christian Workers Union (CWU) and the Port of Belize Limited (PBL), the two issues that are of concern for members of the CWU at this time are the failure of the employees of PBL to arrive at a Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) with the company, and an (apparent) decision by ASR/BSI (American Sugar Refinery/Belize Sugar Industries) to bypass the port in Belize City and transport their sugar by road to the port in Big Creek in the Stann Creek District.
The CWU, which represents the staff of PBL and the stevedores who work at the port, said in a press release that they are drawing the line with the company because the receivership that controls it is a failure (PBL has reportedly not made sufficient investments to improve efficiency and safety at the port), and that their failure is compounded by “gross discourtesy and disrespect.”
The CWU said in their release that they sent a new proposal for a CBA to the PBL last year, and the PBL completely ignored it. The CWU says that the apparent decision by ASR/BSI to transport sugar by road to Big Creek will have devastating consequences for one hundred and fifty of their stevedores, that a third of them will become unemployed and the rest of them will see a 40% cut in their earnings.
The CWU says that ASR/BSI has offered multiple gratuity options to their employees who will be affected, while the PBL receivership has completely ignored the stevedores who work at the port. The CWU, in its press release, says they are “demanding a signed agreement for compensation for [their] Members for the years that they have worked sugar, once they have been made redundant”, and they will not wait “until the last sugar boat is loaded [because they] do not trust the present management of PBL.”
Labor has been losing ground in Belize for decades, and this present stand might be their last, or it might be the beginning of a better day for the workers of our country. We agree with the esteemed lady, Ms. Sandra Coye, that the employees and stevedores at PBL, with the support of their union and the NTUCB, should take over ownership of the company. The Port was once owned by the government and people of Belize; we tried private ownership, and the results have not been good.
Labor is under siege from many fronts. In his farewell address to the American people, former US president, Barack Obama, told American workers that they should stop worrying so much about foreigners coming to steal their jobs, that what they should be keeping an eye on is the “relentless pace of automation” and artificial intelligence. Labor is losing ground as some companies become more ruthless in their quest for profits. The path forward for workers is to pool their resources and purchase shares or get full ownership of the companies where they work.
GoB support of sugar transportation by road doesn’t seem logical
In the Amandala of September 24, 2019, senior journalist Rowland Parks reported that ASR/BSI had begun exploring the transportation of sugar by road to Big Creek in the Stann Creek District, similar to what Santander in the Cayo District has been doing.
BSI’s public relations officer, William Neal, told Amandala that they were doing “experimental tests” with overland transportation of sugar because they were “under pressure from the cane farmers” to cut costs, especially because the price for sugar was low on the world market.
Everyone expects businesses to try and cut costs, and that’s what makes this ASR/BSI proposal to give up river transportation and transport sugar by road, intriguing. All over the world it is recognized that it is cheaper, much cheaper, to transport bulk goods by waterways. Transporting goods by railway is cheaper than doing so by road, and shipping by river is cheaper than both railway and road.
ASR/BSI has claimed that their shipping bill is very high, but we are not aware that they have opened their books to show where all the money in transportation is going. Their proposed response to cut costs and ship by roads cannot be allowed to continue without scrutiny, because that calls for a tremendous quantity of subsidy from the government and people of Belize.
There is only one reason that ASR/BSI can find it cheaper to transport sugar the 170 plus miles by road than by river and sea, and that is because there are no road taxes, none that reflect the true cost.
It could be argued that a door would be opened for truckers, and maybe the stevedores at the port in Belize City could try and make an investment to get a bite of this pie, but we would be overlooking the “road wear” component in our calculations.
All countries will do their best to facilitate business, but our government has to factor in the true cost of transporting over 150,000 tons of sugar by road to Big Creek.
Robert D. Atkinson, an opinion contributor to The Hill (thehill.com) says “a wide range of independent, scholarly studies clearly demonstrate that heavy trucks cause significant damage to the nation’s roads. According to a 1979 GAO study (US Government Accountability Office) it would take 9,600 cars to cause the same payment damage as one five-axle trailer hauling 80,000 pounds.”
An editorial comment in the Business Standard of New Delhi (India) claims that “one horsepower of energy can ferry four tons by water, against only 150 kg by road and 500 kg by rail. Many countries in Europe and elsewhere carry over 40 percent of their passenger and freight traffic through water. But in India this proportion is only 3.5 per cent.” India is seeking to increase the use of its waterways for transportation.
If we are interested in being “cost effective,” the government and the sugar companies should be exploring the establishment of better storage and other facilities in Belize City, and finding the best place to connect Santander sugar by feeder road to the Belize River, so that we reduce the stress on our highways.