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Prime Minister Briceno on Union Impasse

The impasses between the Joint Unions and the Government of Belize continues. The Belize National Teachers’ Union are on day three of their strike action against corruption and the ten percent salary cut and continued increment freeze for three years. Both parties are immovable in their positions as the government is moving ahead with salary cut. The BNTU today are demonstrating in front of the National Assembly building while the Sitting of the Senate is ongoing. The unions are asking that UNCAC be implemented immediately as well as other good governance measures. Today, Prime Minister John Briceno appeared on Love FM’s The Morning Show and explained that the financial crisis must be addressed immediately.

Hon. John Briceno, Prime Minister of Belize: “I sincerely believe that the majority of the teachers are with us. The majority of the public officers are with us. Even the leaders when we talk to them one on one they understand what is it that we’re doing. When we started the discussion with them it was never about the implementation of UNCAC and we need to also explain that UNCAC is not a law, UNCAC is a convention that we signed with the United Nations – it’s a United Nations Convention Against Corruption and that government will take certain actions. Now the previous government signed onto UNCAC after I was the first one that went to the House and challenged them to sign and they signed on but hardly anything happened. Now here we come with a few members of the union all of a sudden say well if you don’t do UNCAC we don’t want to talk about nothing. I mean let’s be reasonable man. We have committed, it is in Plan Belize, we have tabled a resolution spelling out all that we’re going to do but as I said as we came in, we can’t amend our laws right now when in October people were flooding out, fields are under water, people needed help to get out. After that we have to look after the issue of COVID which thankfully we’ve brought down the curve and then right after that when we finished that and started to look at the financial situation we have a financial crisis in front of us. We could pass the most prettiest of laws this country could ever have or any country could ever have but if you don’t have money to pay the public officers, if God forbid we are to have a devaluation all of that is meaningless. We need to have a grip on the financial crisis that we are facing. People don’t understand that this financial year that is ending at the end of this month the government borrowed $370 million more than was approved. In the last two budgets the then Prime Minister Barrow borrowed $700 million to pay its recurrent expenditures that means that we do not have enough money to pay salaries, we don’t have money to pay fuel, we don’t have money to run the government and that is what we have been explaining to the unions and they know it because they are the ones that are inside looking at the numbers, they know how the government has been going and had to borrow almost a million dollars a day. And now all of a sudden say if we don’t pass that we won’t even – so it doesn’t matter what we pass right now if we do not take care of this financial crisis.”

Briceno says that the Government has been willing to give the unions are being unreasonable with their demands.

Hon. John Briceno, Prime Minister of Belize: “In their last letter they told us that they’re giving us three to six months of implementing the unjust enrichment laws, the recovery of assets and so forth -three to six months. And we said yes, now that we say yes now they say well we want it immediately, how will we do it immediately ? They gave us in writing that they’ll be giving us three to six months to do it and now they say they want it right now. They’re not being reasonable but what happened before with Mr.Barrow is that whenever the unions shout about corruption they get a raise and then they calm down the unions and they say alright we’re going to start to work on it nothing happens, they speak out again they get another raise. That is the strategy they did quite effectively with the unions. Now here we are being honest with the unions, we have shown them the numbers, we’re not hiding the numbers from them or from anybody all we’re saying is listen we need you to help us. We are partners in this. Sixty five thousand people lost their jobs and I understand the difficulty that the teachers and our public officers will be going through with a ten percent cut I understand it but if we don’t have the money to give them what is it – we can’t continue to print money. We need to think about those sixty five thousand people that have nothing, they got nothing yet the government workers and the teachers all through this pandemic they got paid.”

According to the Prime Minister, government continues to reach out to the Joint Unions to return to the negotiating table.

Hon. John Briceno, Prime Minister of Belize: “We always said to the unions we’re open to talk to them. The budget has passed and the Senate today they’re going to have their debate but as you know the Senate cannot stop a money bill. So the budget has passed. The 10% unfortunately has to be implemented but we continue to speak with the unions. We see them as partners and even as friends I mean like in every family you don’t agree on everything but that does not mean that they will become enemies and so we continue to reach out to the unions.”

Also speaking to us was Minister of Agriculture, Jose Mai. While he appreciates the unions since he was a public officer for eighteen years, he believes the unions are being belligerent in their demands.

Jose Mai, Minister of Agriculture, Food Security and Enterprise: “You will recall  that the lockdown was in March, I think. The teachers didn’t go to school, March, April, May, June, July, August, they started to do packages and so on. So they have had their share of staying at home, while farmers were working day and night producing food for the people of this country. While you and I were in the comfort of our homes, you know, being scared to come out, the farmers, the cane cutters were in the trucks cutting cane in the blazing sun. What about these people? I think., and I want and I hope that wisdom prevails and that they understand that we’re in this together. Everybody has to work together to get out of this one we’re in today. This country is among the worst countries in the world right now economically, for making business, for investment. We owe so much money. We didn’t cause this, this was given to us. We knew that the country was in a bad state and the people elected us because of that, because they want us to fix it. So when they say good governance, we are for good governance. We were elected on a platform of good governance. The good governance is our agenda, it’s not their agenda but we welcome them to participate with us. We are for good governance. We want the UNCAC, it is the PUP that came up with the UNCAC along with the unions and teachers and everybody,; we want the UNCAC. We deserve to have the UNCAC, some people business in prison you know but this takes time? You cannot judge me in 162 days. Why did you not judge the previous government who were 13 years in government? Why didn’t they demonstrate against that regime for good governance?  But I just think that there are a few leaders in the union who have a different agenda and you’ll always find that, in all the unions in every organization you will find that. It’s the nature of human being but this is not the time for that. Our country needs us, our children need us, they have been out of school for a very long time. But that doesn’t give you the right you know the children have been out for a very long time, and maybe that’s the reason why they say “oh we will strike, they have to give us the 10% or they have to give us 10% and not take it away from us.” I think it’s unfair and I hope and I pray that they do get some wisdom from God and that they can rethink their position and go back to work. This country needs us, it needs all of us including our friends in opposition.”

OUT Mai went on to say that as long as he can remember in this country there is freedom of speech and he believes the unions choosing the boycott the media is wrong.