Last month Plus TV along with other local media houses was invited on a tour of the Santander farms and facilities – a multimillion dollar sugarcane project situated on 20 thousand acres of land privately owned by Guatemalans behind the banana bank area, in Belmopan. The purpose of the media tour was twofold: One, to formally introduce themselves and two, to dispel the negative reputation the company had gotten since news of Green Tropics first started making its rounds in the media, which might have been one of the reasons why the brand was changed all together. However today, the Guatemalan owned company might be going back to square one in terms of their popularity after about hundred workers threatened to protest. Police and what looked like personnel in BDF uniform were called to the Santander project site this morning and so was the media For those who have never been to Santander, there are three gates that you must pass before you reach the project site. Our news crew got through the first and second gates without much trouble but when they got to the third and final gate , they would not let them through and the security guard was trying to get our crew to turn back saying he had received direct orders from his authorities not to let the media through. The large crowd of protestors saw when our crew arrived and marched towards them desperate to be heard. They explained their plight and why they feel they are being underpaid.
“They study the promise we but all of these days pass, weeks pass ,months pass and it’s the same thing. Last two weeks they stated a memorandum of notice that we will get paid by how the law of Belize state it. When we collect, some of them are collecting $10.00, $5.00 $6.50, so what is the notice. Nothing. They just the punk we off. They di tek we lightly. “
Emmanuel Pech- Plus TV Reporter
“You think we have the qualifications to get paid equivalently to how the others are getting paid?”
“Exactly, we do. We do the same job equally.
Edwin Varela – Santander Worker
“We need a raise of pay because they di give the preference to the Guatemalans.”
“How much are they paying you.”
$35 a day. The Guatemalans, some of them $80 some of them $70. In my belief this is unfair.
Jorge Calderon – Worker
Watch how high that, and I just the work for 50 bills. Imagine I drop from that. That’s nothing for what I di work for. I just go up deh and suppose I dead. That’s nothing fi mek I risk my life up deh. I am a welder.
Protestor – Santander worker
“This is a check. This noh good. It says $669 and what comes out here, $6.50.
Whole ah this holiday we work right through but this can’t come out like this.”
Protestor – Santander worker
“Due to their maths and thing, that’s correct, and we ignorant. We noh know about that so we fi just get that. “
Jorge Calderon – Worker
“They think we are dumb.”
“When did you get fired. Were you informed that you were relieved?”
Protestor – Santander worker
“Today, because I gone to the man and told him that I am just collecting $150 and I work 13 days. I did extra hours too and only collect $150. I asked him,’boss, how my pay deh soh.’ And the first thing he tell me is,’ I have nothing fih do with you.’ I tell he,’ why not, I di work and I only di get $150.’ He tell me, ‘If I noh like it, the gate di right there.’ In my social, they are getting $19 from out of my social which is only $150. I told him that and he tell me ,’ you know what, you ae fired.’ He told the police man mek he move we from out of the yard for making a lot of noise, but we are making noise for our rights.”
Arturo Maroquin – Santander worker
“Because I di talk like this the man said I am fired. What you think about that? What are my benefits and my rights now.”
“How long have you worked for.”
“I di ya one month but they way deh di treat we, I just want they pay me and mek I just move from here because this noh di happen. See my brother right there, he mi di expect so much, but when we get our pay its not correct. Now they tell we that due to their maths and thing, that correct. They said we cant do nothing, just go work.”
And while most of the protestors were helpers under training, with a minimum of 5 months working at Santander, some of the professional welders also felt they were being underpaid. Arcenio Estrada is a welder from Dangriga with over 15 years of experience.
“I was told a lie, yuh know. I was told that I would be making a certain amount of money. I am actually a skilled welder. I helped to build the U.S Embassy and I worked several places before. I was deprived of my welding skills here. They didn’t even give me a welding test. They just told me take forty dollars and if you don’t want it just go home. I noticed all the other guys coming after me they took a test and they got pay raise. Up to now, a whole year, I haven’t received a raise; me and several other guys here. So that is what’s going on here.”
“How long have you been working here?”
“About a year now, a year and two months. “
“What are some of the things you’ve done in the pass that proves your qualifications?”
“I’ve welded several of the areas here; boilers, pedestals. Just about everything. So much I can’t even explain, you know. “
“What was the promise that they made to you and how much does it differ from what was paid.”
“The promise they made to me was that I was going to make about a thousand dollars every week or two weeks. I can’t remember but it doesn’t add up.”
So, how much are you receiving?”
Actually like seven hundred dollars. Yuh know, that’s with over time.”
Have you spoken to them? Have you approached them? What are they saying?”
“Several times. Actually, right now they told us that they will let me prove my skills now. I said, well, you guys will let me have to wait a whole year to let me prove my skills now. So, that’s what they said in the meeting right there.”
Apart from being underpaid , the workers claim they have to put up with bad working conditions.
“Last week Monday, we come. Normally we come with fi we bad and we come right through. Now when we come, the security tell we if we want come, leff uno bag deh. Some bredda bring food, coconut, all kind of spices right. If we leff it, you see how hot in ya. If you leff your food in ya and 10 o’clock you come; that done spoil because some people bring hot food; different kinds of food. I neva bring lunch because I neva know what mi wah happen today. Now the other day, like Friday, they tell we, we mi wah get paid 1 o’clock. Now when we gone, they said if we want, we will get in the evening or maybe Sunday, maybe Saturday. We mi di expect $300 based on our profession.
Some minutes before 12 pm, the agitated workers were called into a meeting with the executives of Santander. Plusnews sent in a request for an interview and waited for over an hour for the meeting to conclude. But when it did, they would not grant our crew an interview and told us they will be sending a press release. Late this evening however we received a call from Beverly Burke, the Public Relations Officer for Santander who explained why the employees were agitated today about their payment.
“Just before the Easter Holiday, we had situation where we realized based on employees coming forward, asking us if we can give them some of their pay before going off on their Easter vacation because their payday was actually after the Easter. What we ended up doing was; we looked at the ordinary days that would have been paid for the period, we gave them up to that point before going off on their Easter break and then to complete up to last week was the remainder of the money that they had received. So, of course if you had already gotten a portion of your pay, the remainder of that pay would not be looking like a full fledge pay.”
The company currently employees about 600 persons and we had received word that at least two persons have been fired today and those who participated in today’s protest would also be dismissed. However, according to Beverly Burke, no one has been fired.
“That’s news to me. As far as I am aware, no one has been fired. Workers who did choose that the situation is not what they want, and choose to leave, I cannot prevent that. But I will say to you that today’s action was such that we communicated with their workers. We made sure that they received their right information and no dismissal has occurred. If that is what they are anticipating, then I am sorry to say that they will be disappointed. No one has been dissmissed.
As for the concerns about life insurance and the working conditions of the employees, Bevery Burke told us that the company is working with what they have at the moment, seeing that they have not even started selling sugar. She affirmed however, that the company is taking note of the employees concerns and hopes to establish humanitarian programs to address those concerns.