High Court Justice Geneviève Chabot Delivers Landmark Ruling on Port of Belize Strike

High Court Justice Geneviève Chabot Delivers Landmark Ruling on Port of Belize Strike

Geneviève Chabot, Justice of the High Court, issued a significant ruling today that may or may not affect unionism.  The ruling is regarding a matter between the Christian Workers Union and the Port of Belize.  The matter has to do with the strike that ensued from January 20 to the 27th, 2022 on the port compound on Caesar Ridge Road.  In this case, the Port of Belize filed a claim for damages caused during this strike, and has alleged that the strike was illegal.  On the other hand, the CWU has denied the allegations and rejected the claims by the Port, saying that they operated on the statutory immunities, privileges, and defenses afforded to trade unions and their members, under the Trade Unions Act and the Trade Unions and Employers Organisations Act. The court’s role in this matter was to determine the issue of statutory immunity as a preliminary question of law.  Attorney Darrell Bradley spoke to Love News on today’s ruling, explaining what makes this a difficult, but refreshing case.

Darrel Bradley, Attorney at Law: “ Basically, the Trade Union Act has been in existence since about the 1940s, and the Trade Union Act contains certain immunities, particularly in section 33 and 34 of the act, which says that a trade union and an employee employer’s organization shall not be liable for any tortious action. So what that means is that basically you could not sue. A trade union or its members, or an employer’s organization or the employer for any tortious liability that results within the context of an industrial dispute. And the reason for that is because basically as employment law developed, unions began to strike. And a strike by its very nature, tends to be illegal because I am withdrawing my labor. It may involve aggressive conduct, it may involve picketing, it may involve taking actions, which would  be considered in law tort. It would give rise to civil liability. And so those immunities were developed. In and around the 1990s, the government of Belize determined to streamline the legislation that deals with trade unions, and it amended the law so that  it created a more comprehensive regime. It incorporated constitutional principles and so forth, but what it did that it did not incorporate those immunities into the new legislation. And so that law, the Trade Union Act continues to be a law on the books. It continues to be a law, even on the constitutional on the Consolidated Laws of Belize, which were updated as of 2020, that law the Trade Union Act is still on the books and Section 33 and section 34, in our opinion, is still applicable to trade unions. What the issue that the court determined this morning is that the new piece of legislation, the law that was passed in the 1990s, impliedly repealed those provisions so that a trade union now does not have those immunities which are set out in the Trade Union’s Act, which is very, very fundamental. So that the court ruling this morning was, very in my sense refreshing in one way because it’s the first ruling in Belize that expressly says that trade unions have a right to strike. So that many pieces of case law have mentioned that in the past, have dealt with the fundamental rights to join trade union which is expressed in our constitution bit didn’t go so  far. The courts have never gone so far as to say in Belize, you have an express right to strike. This case this morning says that trade unions have an expressed right to strike, but that right to strike has to be exercised in accordance with legality. So the issue now going forward would be whether or not this particular strike was done in a legal way. But we are saying that all strikes are inherently illegal. So in our humble opinion that doesn’t set the matter much further because when you are striking it’s a confrontational thing. It’s not like I’m friendly with you. It’s an adversarial, very confrontational move and it does involve civil liabilities, which is why those immunities existed in law in the first place.”

In her judgement, Justice Chabot, indicated that she is not going to determine, at this stage, whether the strike was carried out legally or illegally under the laws of Belize. She added that a trial would be necessary to make that determination.  Attorney Bradley noted that what may have been an oversight, has left certain factors up in the air.  He also noted that with the issue of immunity brought to light, being a union member might not be so beneficial.

Darrel Bradley, Attorney at Law: “One of our fundamental arguments is that this is not something that a court should do. A court should defer to parliament and let parliament see whether or not those statutory immunities are repealed, or whether or not those statutory immunities apply, and if they do apply who they apply to. One of the things that we were arguing is that this is a constitutional issue, and the courts agreed with that by saying that Trade unions have a constitutional right to strike, and what we’re saying is that if you have a constitutional right to strike and your employer can sue you that undermines the right to strike. Because in this particular case, what the Port of Belize is doing is that the Port of Belize is suing the president of the Christian Workers Union, and they’re suing certain executive members of the Christian Workers Union. So what we are saying is that if you go on a strike, essentially what will happen is that the employer will just sue you. And if I can lose my house, if I can lose my bank account, if I can lose any property that I have because of a civil liability that renders the right to strike hollow because you can use litigation in a very oppressive way to really make the right to strike something that really doesn’t exist in practice and we’re seeing this in this particular case where all of this emerged as a result of a strike action that occurred during the month of January of last year. All of it was in the context of a strike. So if you are able to sue somebody as a result of that then you rendered the right to strike nugatory.”

Love News understands that the union will explore the idea to appeal.  The Port of Belize was represented by Senior Counsel Godfrey Smith and Hector Guerra.  The CWU was represented by Magalie Perdomo while the rest of the defendants were represented by Darrell Bradley.  Those other defendants are: Guy Neal, Winfield Dennison, Kenton Blanco, James Neal and Wendell Whitaker. 

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