A group of stevedores was in front of the Port of Belize Limited (PBL) protesting this morning. The protest revolves around reports that the Belize Sugar Industries (BSI) is collaborating with Santander Group and moving away from exporting sugar through PBL and will be exporting through Big Creek Port in Stann Creek District. This morning at around 9 o’clock stevedores refused to load the sugar barges. According to the president of the Christian Workers Union, Evan Mose Hyde, the livelihood of 150 people is at risk and the union is prepared to fight as long as they need to until they get answers.
Evan Mose Hyde, President, Christian Workers Union: “We are looking at about almost a third of our stevedores will be unemployed because at least forty of them only work sugar, raw sugar export. Whenever that is closed down they are effectively out of a job. The other stevedores will be impacted significantly as well to the tune of about 40% of their annual earnings. The number that we are putting out to the nation is about $2 million worth of earnings will be lost from our members per annum out of this community, out of Belize City and in many instances out of the south side of Belize City, an area that can least afford that kind of economic impact. It will have a devastating impact on our members’ financial stability and this happens without being properly engaged, respectful engaged by the people for whom they have been making money for for all these years. Not a single word of conservation of engagement with our members. Not an approach. ASR as we speak are engaging members of our sister union of the BWU talking to our members there about their redundancy and making preparations for that. We heard Santander. We have been engaging with no less than the highest office in the land the Prime Minister to have an intervention firstly to see what can be done to get PBL to do what any normal cooperation would do that is compete. Compete for it’s own shareholders but compete for it’s workforce and in our view they have failed to do that. The government has indicated that they are unable to compel PBL to do that. The big thing here is that even as we speak, even the Prime Minister is unable to say definitively when exactly ASR is going to stop, all indications are this is going to be the last season that they will export raw sugar out here and very reliable information is that the number of boats that will come here will be halved so this is going to be a disaster any way you look at it. A financial disaster but there are also what we believe to be obligations to deal with our members fairly if that is what is going to happen.”
The question in this issue is whether the sugar loading will be moving away from the Port of Belize Limited. According to the Port of Belize Limited CEO, Arturo Vasquez, BSI/ASR isn’t moving away from exporting through PBL. However, he did note that exporting sugar through this current method is old fashioned and costly and does not blame BSI/ASR for looking at other options.
Arturo Vasquez, CEO , Port of Belize Limited: “My understanding is that BSI was doing a test run last year but from my understanding – I think we have a ship starting in about a couple weeks – my understanding is that it will continue as it has been going but it has to be understood that BSI is looking of course at seeing how they can do these loading of these ships in a more economical way and so you all will understand that any corporation will be looking at trying to better their operations. In 2017 Belize lost the preferential prices on sugar, ever since then BSI has to be as competitive as anybody else. Who is familiar with the loading of the sugar will know that it’s a very antiquated system, it takes forever to be loaded, BSI over the years have been trying to work with us and the stevedores in seeing how we can perhaps better that loading which has come to a point where it’s no longer sustainable to do. But to answer your question I don’t know that it has stopped, from what I know it will continue.”
Vasquez went on to say that there have been discussions between BSI/ASR and PBL about making the loading of sugar more efficient. The suggestion was rather than issuing contracts by shifts the stevedores would be paid by the quantity they load. According to Vasquez this idea isn’t supported by all the stevedores and creates conflict within the gangs. For reference, a gang is a group of about 20-30 stevedores.
Arturo Vasquez, CEO , Port of Belize Limited:“The situation here is that there are shifts that work these ships and there is a certain amount that has to be loaded, that amount can of course double and triple but some gangs are prepared to do it some gangs are not prepared to do it. The whole idea here is that the ship has to be in and out of here as soon as possible, that’s the objective. So if you can load more sugar you load more sugar. There is something that the BSI has been doing over the years of providing contracts meaning that paying the stevedores to load more sugar so that the ship can be loaded quicker and get out of here quicker. Of course that will affect the length of time that the ship is here and if the ship is here for a shorter period of time granted it’s not as much work will get done but what can we do about something like that? There’s nothing that you can do about it. The union, some gangs are prepared to do these contract work some are not, some that are prepared to do it are literally threatened by the other gangs so this has become a problem continuously. At the end of the day we have to understand that these corporations will be looking at efficient ways to operate and there’s nothing that we can do. The port will also lose money so of course I’m also negotiating to see what best we can do but there’s nothing that we can do at this point. BSI is about to issue a proposal as to proposing to the stevedores to be paid based on what you load, right now you’re paid for a shift and you’re allowed to load so much that’s basically how it’s done right now.”
Up to news time, there haven’t been any agreements between the Union and Port of Belize Limited. According to Arturo Vasquez, there has also been no set of demands presented to him.