Wednesday, June 19, 2024

Unions show support to terminated workers of Port of Belize; ComPol investigating use of force against protesters


The main labor unions of the country have shown their solidarity with the Christian Workers Union (CWU), following the termination of some of its members by the Port of Belize (PBL), and being abused by members of the Gang Suppression Unit after peacefully protesting on Wednesday, July 22nd. The GSU tried to disperse the crowd with rubber bullets and tear gas, a move that Commissioner of Police (ComPol) Chester Williams condemned and pledged to investigate as to who gave such orders.

Some of the unions supporting and demanding fair treatment of workers included the Belize National Teachers Union, the National Trade Union Congress of Belize (NTUCB), and the University of Belize Faculty and Staff Union. Speaking on behalf of the NTUCB, its president Marvin Mora said that they will keep pressuring for fairness and if they have to escalate, they will do so.

Over the past two weeks, stevedores (PBL employees) have been protesting the proposed salary cuts announced by the company. According to CWU’s President, Evan ‘Mose’ Hyde, they had asked for the company’s financial documentation in order to reach an agreement. “Our collective bargaining agreement gives us the authority to request financial documents from PBL to preserve good industrial relations,” said Hyde. He added that they are just demanding such contracts to be respected.

But then CWU staff members were notified of their termination, apparently via a text message from management. CWU believes the termination is unlawful and the matter went to the court to stall the implementation of redundancy by filing for an injunction. While this happened, ComPol stated that the peaceful protesters could stay within the PBL compound demonstrating as long as they did not become violent and that GSU officers be removed. However, it appears that memo either did not reach the GSU officers, or it was ignored, as they began firing rubber bullets and tear gas at the crowd.

ComPol Williams said they are trying to find out who overrode his order. “I am still trying to find out and I have met with the senior command of Eastern Division and I hope that it is not a situation where someone decided to go above me and do as they please,” said Williams. “When an instruction is given so long as that instruction is a lawful one it is expected that those below must follow the instructions.” Williams invited those injured in the mayhem, to make a report at the police station.

The Minister of National Security, Honourable Michael Peyrefitte also condemned such actions by the GSU. “An investigation will be done and somebody will be made to pay, at least one person will be made to pay when it comes to that incident, because the instructions were absolutely clear, leave those people on that compound until the court has ruled,” said Peyrefitte.

The request for an injunction went before the court and after 2PM on Wednesday, July 22nd, PBL’s attorney Godfrey Smith told the media what transpired. He explained that there were no grounds for the injunction. “The other side had notice of the contemplated terminations from at least a week ago. They waited until this morning to file an application. By that time, as I indicated to the court, the termination had already taken effect,” said Smith. He also spoke about the request of an order of reinstatement. “We thought there were no grounds for granting the injunction or the order for reinstatement. The arguments put on behalf of the attorney general and the labour commissioner was that there was a breach of the statute, failure to consult. We said no, there was no failure to consult. But if that is the breach that you are saying that the port did, the remedy for that is an order compelling consultation, not an order for reinstatement. It is the workers who need to bring that case.” A judgement is yet to be made by the court.

As the issue continues awaiting a favourable solution for the 36 terminated employees, PBL explained their reasons for dismissing the said workers. According to a press release,  the terminations are due to redundancy, necessitated due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the lockdown of Belize and the global economic downturn, which, cumulatively resulted in a drastic reduction in the volume of PBL’s operations and an overall fall in revenue of 41%. In the release, PBL strived to maintain its full staff complement for as long as it possibly could but worsening economic conditions combined with illegal strike action resulting in delays and substantial loss of revenue, has made it impracticable to continue to do so. The release ends by stating that the decision was made in the long-term interest of its employees, PBL and the general public.

We will continue following this story.

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