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Clarifying the situation at the Port of Belize regarding stevedores and proposing a fair solution

Posted: Tuesday, March 12, 2024. 10:42 pm CST.

Contributed: The Port of Belize (PBL) is compelled to stipulate vital omissions and to correct misleading and erroneous statements made by the Christian Workers Union (CWU) and Stevedores in a press conference on, March 5, 2024. It is the considered opinion of PBL that these statements were made by CWU to sway public opinion in their favor and thus impact the course of the negotiations currently ongoing among the CWU, GOB, and PBL.

PBL notes that there has been no award of compensation to stevedores made by the Essential Services Arbitration Tribunal (ESAT). The ESAT award of July 27, 2022 directed the CWU and PBL to forthwith engage in negotiations on the terms of payment outlined in clause 26 of the March 2020 Negotiating Framework Agreement (“March 2020 NFA”) between PBL and CWU. The ESAT in their deliberations also found that no stevedore was terminated or made redundant.

The ESAT finding is consistent with the fact that PBL did not terminate any stevedore because of bulk sugar leaving the Port of Belize. Not a single stevedore lost their employment or was made redundant. This has been the basis of the legal position of PBL.

Notwithstanding and without prejudice to PBL’s legal position, PBL in a good faith effort made a proposal for a “Redundancy Package” with the aim of amicably resolving this legacy issue and aligning management and labor to bring both parties’ full attention and efforts to fulfilling the new vision for the Port. This is because the Port is in dire need of restructuring to be viable in a modern competitive environment. Bulk sugar has left, there has been no new business, and retaining the container traffic is shaky at best. Shipping lines and downstream businesses that depend on efficient and cost-effective port services have expressed dissatisfaction with the services offered by PBL and its stevedores, and PBL has an obligation to the Belizean public, the new beneficial owners of the Port, to rectify these inefficiencies which it has sought to do immediately through good faith negotiations.

PBL considers that the Proposal for the Redundancy Package was more than fair and certainly reasonable. CWU / Stevedores did not accept PBL’s proposal and instead of submitting a counter proposal to PBL as required by the negotiating framework agreement, reached out to the Prime Minister for intervention. At CWU’s request, a meeting was convened with GOB, CWU, and PBL in which the Prime Minister made it clear that the GOB’s position, based on numerous legal opinions, was that there were no redundancy and as such no compensation was due. However, the port needed to be upgraded, modernized, and expanded and this issue regarding a redundancy package needed to be put behind us so that the Port could start afresh. As such, the GOB was willing to make an additional offer of $1.5 million subject to the acceptance by CWU of PBL’s proposal of 1.05 million (inclusive of retirement benefits and a smaller compensation sum for hypothetical “Loss of Earnings”). The total package, which included some retirement benefits, amounted to a package of $2.55 million).

GOB’s proposal of $1.6 million, was made contingent on acceptance of PBL’s Proposal since PBL’s proposal seeks alignment on the way forward for the Port. In particular, PBL asked for several changes in the current work practices that are needed for more efficient and productive operations of the Port. Firstly, that no additions can be made to the official list of stevedores unless mutually agreed between CWU and PBL. Secondly, the number of gangs cannot be increased unless supported by a concurrent growth of cargo throughput and mutually agreed between CWU and PBL. Thirdly, gangs are to be made up of 12 members. Fourthly, alternate gangs shall work to complete any one vessel in shifts with a normal shift being 8 hours and no shift shall exceed 15 hours, so that ships do not sit idly in the Port for 9 hours at a time with no loading or offloading occurring.

With respect to these proposals by PBL and GOB, two meetings were held among the parties and an agreement was reached last Thursday with CWU then instructing their legal counsel to draft a Settlement Deed to present to PBL. The CWU had agreed to: (1) accept the $1.6 mm offered by the GOB and the $1.05 mm in the PBL proposal (total of $2.55 mm) and (2) make the changes on the number of gang members from 14 to 13, using alternate gangs to work the ships so there would no longer be the 9 hour period where the ship is not being worked, and to incorporate these changes in the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA).

The draft settlement deed was received from CWU’s legal counsel on Thursday evening, February 29, 2024. PBL reverted with its comments/edits on Friday afternoon, March 1, 2024. Later that evening CWU responded saying that they needed further feedback from their membership. On Saturday, March 2, 2024 an email was received from CWU in which they advised that on the premise that negotiations should focus on “sugar money” stevedores are only prepared to accept $1.6 million offered by the GOB to resolve the dispute on the loss of sugar earnings and that the PBL proposal was rejected. Essentially, the stevedores decided in a complete volte face to not negotiate the gang rotation or other issues to allow the Port to operate more efficiently.

This position by CWU can only be seen as a complete reversal by CWU from the agreements arrived at during the negotiations among the parties and the very same agreements that they themselves had instructed their legal counsel to incorporate in the draft settlement deed which clearly contemplated changes to the CBA.

To further put the stevedore situation into perspective, stevedores make over $100 per hour (20 times the minimum wage) through salaries and production bonuses when they work a container ship. In the current regime, a stevedore may only have a “turn” at working a ship 2-3 times a month. Nevertheless, the average salary of a stevedore in 2023 was $34,000. Because of the low amount of work days per year, stevedores, under the labor law are classified as “casual” workers and therefore cannot qualify for a number of benefits which goes along with having continuous employment. The designating of who works and when is fully under the control of the CWU/stevedores. The current work regime is a gang per ship, with 8 gangs of 14 men each rotating on a per ship basis. Ironically, the one gang per ship, if the ship cargo removal requires more than 24 hours, creates a situation in which no work happens for 9 hours, i.e. the gang works for 15 hours and sits for 9 hours. This is a significant and unnecessary cost that the Belizean consumer ultimately bears. PBL has a fiduciary obligation to protect the interests of the Belizean public – not only as consumers, but also as the ultimate beneficial owners of PBL.

In today’s press conference, CWU accused PBL of undermining the CBA and doing something sinister by including the changes to the working practices. Again, PBL stresses that the Settlement Deed which included all those CBA provisions and other agreements arrived at that are now “undermining” and “sinister” were drafted by competent legal counsel of CWU and included in the first draft of the Settlement Deed on CWU’s own instructions. PBL stands ready to resume negotiations in good faith with an informed general public, which it ultimately serves.

For further information please feel free to contact the Port of Belize Limited at phone #:(501)223-2439 (desk of Public Relations) or email at [email protected].

 

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