Waterfront workers now Under Essential Services Act Print E-mail
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Written by By Shane D. Williams   
Wednesday, 23 December 2015 00:00

The stevedores at the Port of Belize Limited laid a significant blow on the business community this Christmas season when they launched an abrupt and unannounced strike outside the compound of the Port of Belize on Monday, December 7. This strike was the stevedores’ response to a claim that management of the Port of Belize had changed its position on a promise made in the negotiation process. Arturo Vasquez, Chief Executive Officer of the Port of Belize Limited, disputed the claim made by the stevedores and their union, Christian Workers Union, but while the two entities quarrelled the business community suffered. In order to ensure that the entire business community will no longer be a casualty of differing positions in the Port of Belize Limited’s Collective Bargaining Agreement process, the Ministry of Labour passed a Statutory Instrument that establishes stevedores and other waterfront workers as essential services employees.

According to a release from the Ministry of Labour, a Statutory Instrument has been signed amending the Essential Services Act to add one more field of work on the list, “Port Services involving the loading or unloading of ship’s cargo”.  Now that port services will fall within the provisions of the Essential Services Act, the union or management is required to give 21 days notice before any industrial action can be taken. The Ministry says this will allow for “early intervention by government into trade disputes and reduce the likelihood of lockout or strike”. The stevedores’ recent strike lasted for two days and at least two ships had to leave the dock without unloading cargo. This caused businesses tens of thousands of dollars in sales, time and marketing opportunity.   

The Christian Workers Union strongly opposes the Statutory Instrument. The union issued a release on Monday, December 21, which reads, “once again government has decided to take the side of big people against working Belizeans.” President of the CWU, Audrey Matura-Shepherd, says, “After consultations with our stevedores and seeking direction, they feel that they have gotten the royal Christmas bukut from the government.” Matura-Shepherd went on to speak of the trouble they have been encountering during the CBA process with the Port of Belize. She went on to mention that over 90 percent of the stevedores publicly support the governing party.

Once again, the CWU President seems to be making this dispute one of personalities instead of positions. She is also neglecting to state the reason why it was 14 months after her assumption of the presidency that the negotiations for a new Collective Bargaining Agreement started in earnest. 

The abrupt and unannounced strike by such a crucial field of workers also has devastating effect on the country’s economy. What if the strike had gone more than two days? How would the economy be harmed if the stevedores decide to strike until the Port of Belize grants their every wish? Can the economy withstand a month without loading and unloading workers at the international ports? Now that the stevedores are operating under the Essential Services Act, the Port of Belize will have 21 days to set up a contingency plan in times of dispute. The country should never be held hostage for a private sector feud and this Statutory Instrument offers some sort of protection.