Stevedores working for the Port of Belize Limited effectively shut down operations between six last evening and this morning until management agreed to meet with them discussing concerns of a pay dispute. The Port claims in a letter sent to the workers’ representatives, the Christian Workers’ Union (CWU), that Belize Sugar Industries Limited and others were dissatisfied with the stevedores’ productivity, and thus operations would be suspended. The workers responded by threatening to stop their work if they were not paid. Christian Workers Union president Audrey Matura-Shepherd explains why the Union did not buy the Port’s complaints.
Audrey Matura-Shepard: From our end what we can say is that the biggest problem that we have is that for months now we’ve been trying to get Port of Belize negotiating team to come to the table and what are the benefits of Stevedores and they’ve refused to do that. We’ve written letters, they’ve ignored some of our letters. We’ve presented our CBA, which is the collective bargaining agreement, they have not even given a response as to what are the different issues that we brought up. They haven’t even counter propose as is usual. So clearly there is a problem. I as the president of CWU, and in charge of the Stevedores, I have worked through the process fairly with them. I have asked them to be patient. I have gone through and written the letters. I’ve done everything and shown them that there is a proper way to do it. But we’re acting in good faith, but Port is not acting in good faith.
The stevedores planned a demonstration for this morning, Thursday, and 9:15 there were fifty men present in addition to the gangs working on the waterfront, who halted operations in solidarity. Shortly thereafter, Port CEO Arturo Vasquez called a meeting and conceded to the two demands of the Union: payment outstanding to workers and a re-start of negotiations for the Collective Bargaining Agreement which have been going on for more than a decade. As to that negotiation process for a new collective bargaining agreement, there is no telling how those will go when both sides come to the table on September 18. But according to Matura-Shepherd what is important is that negotiations are back on.
Audrey Matura-Shepard: That is not true. We have all the letters but we will move ahead. What Mr. Tucks and myself agreed on just now is that let us not fight over the semantics. Let us find a way forward and on that good faith, we’re prepared to move forward. We have sent our proposal to them, they have not counter proposed, but like we agreed just now, everything is on the table. We will thresh out any semantics and details there. What is important is for us to start talking, and I’m sure we want the same thing. We want to make sure that there is productivity and productivity on both sides. That the port can produce, because it does affect the economy of this country and work mien and not look down and they get a fair day’s salary and benefits.
Here now is CEO Arturo Vasquez’ side of events:
Arturo Vasquez: Yesterday we realized that there was a little bit of delay in the productivity on the sugar barges, and we have no idea why, that was the case. Honestly, no reason why, So we wrote them a letter yesterday to tell them that we noticed that the productivity is down. That we will have to take and advise us what the reasons are and that we would have to be paying based on production. We got no response to that. Last night there was an attempt by the container barge to strike, I imagine in solidarity, and after speaking to them, I think they realized it’s best they continue to work. Because they weren’t too straight as to what the situation was. I had no answer to my letter, no phone call, nothing at all. So we decided along with BSI to close operation at the sugar barge and they came in. They worked yesterday but small production, nothing compared to what they were suppose to produce. Anyways that’s it, we closed that down. The ship for 6 o clock did not go and this morning of course the ship did not go either. Then this morning I came to work and I heard that they were planning to strike on the container barge again.
Vasquez says the effect of the go slow was time lost and paying for work not put in. Here is his view of the negotiations:
Arturo Vasquez: What we did really is we emphasized that we’d meet Friday. Just to at least put the situation on the table because we have different opinions. We have had a situation where last negotiating, we have signed MOUs where we have implemented, back pay, salary increases, insurances, things that were not in place before. We had agreed before that, with the previous leadership that as soon as we agree certain things within the CBA, that we’ll implement it and continue. Because if you wait until you finish the entire CBA you would not be here of course. You would not agree to everything, and to be fair to the Port, and Stevedores being benefiting is that all of the things that we have agreed too are things that benefit them, salary increases, back pay for seven years, insurances that they’ve never had before, pension situations. Those things that are financial beneficial to them, we decided that those are things we would implement. Things like gang sizes working hours are the things that we have not yet decided. Which is things, I am sure you would agree, are things they would also not want to negotiate either. So fairness to the Port. We have moved quite a bit with the CBA with the previous leadership. Their approach now is to start from the beginning, which I can’t agree to, and that has created a bit of delays. They want to start from the beginning, I am saying that the leadership may have changed but the entity is the same.
Matura-Shepherd expects negotiations to last between 1 and 2 weeks.