Posted: Sunday, March 27, 2022. 1:31 pm CST.
By Aaron Humes: Minister of Immigration Senator Eamon Courtenay has vowed a renewed fight against the issue of child labour in Belize; but prominent farm owner John Zabaneh says he’s not going to take the fall.
Courtenay told the opening ceremony at the Spanish Lookout Commercial and Industrial Expo that when it comes to employment, it’s Belizeans first: “…the government of Belize believes pure and simple that Belizeans should be offered employment before foreigners. Many migrants are illegally entering Belize seeking temporary employment and being employed before they make their way northwards. We have an increase in the number of child laborers, under-aged children who should be in school are toiling in fields for a pittance that the government of Belize will not tolerate this much longer. We will fight child labor, we will fight human trafficking, and we will fight for a living wage for all lawful workers.”
In separate raids reported last Saturday and on Thursday, Immigration officials detained about 38 workers on a citrus farm reportedly owned by Zabaneh and then took more farmworkers including children.
The first group – all from either Honduras or Guatemala – were intercepted in a Maya King bus and interviewed by Police and Immigration officials, after which the adults were released and ten of the 12 minors were taken in by the Anti-Trafficking in Persons Council (ATIPS) office to be reunited with their parents. A further eight minors were found in the Thursday raid.
Zabaneh told Channel 7 News’ Jules Vasquez on Friday night that while some things “fall through the cracks,” he nor anyone else would intentionally hire children to work: “For instance, I maybe have 100 people and you find 4, 5, 6 cases of children who are out in the field working and mostly I would say with their parents; mother, father or their older brother or something like that. You can’t take it at that is the case hiring child labor. Depends who and what they are looking at. I don’t think there is anybody that are doing any kind of human trafficking like what they are trying to claim or digging for or child labor as a habitual practice or something like that – none at all. That does not exist.”
Zabaneh claimed to Channel 7 News that minors who were detained without their parents would have been claimed and any suggestion that there were unaccompanied minors working on his farms are “not true.” In any event, he said, such minors would have been accompanied by adult relatives but the authorities are being strict about the issue.
And he reiterated something we reported on a few weeks ago – there is a COVID-induced labour shortage and as a result, citrus is having a dire year: “The fruit is falling to the ground. This will be a disastrous year, nobody to harvest the fruit. It’s so slow. Other years at this time at the year this is the peak of the crop. For instance, I would be doing 5,6 of these big trailer loads – 900 boxes each – I would be doing between 5 and 6 of those for the day. I am scraping one right now per day and other farms are doing worse, a lot worse.” Zabaneh also said workers are now afraid to work at his farm due to immigration raids.
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