WASA fires 16; union threatens to strike
By Adele Ramos, Amandala Online, 19 April 2000
BELIZE CITY, Wed. Apr. 19 2000
Confirmed reports reaching Amandala are that last Friday, April 14, 2000, 16 employees of the Water and Sewage Authority (eight from Benque Viejo Del Carmen, two from Orange Walk, five from Punta Gorda and one from San Ignacio) were terminated with effect from Saturday, April 15, 2000.
A press release from WASA, dated April 18, claimed that the company is currently undergoing "a comprehensive re-organization exercise" that has affected both management and staff alike.
Harry Bennett, WASA's public relations officer, in an interview with Amandala late this evening said that the company is "inefficient", with only 50 of every 100 gallons of water produced being accounted for.
Bennett told the newspaper that he did not wish to discuss the termination of the 16 employees. He declined to outline the criteria for their selection out of a workforce of 305 because, he said, he did not wish to "preempt" future reorganization efforts, explaining that it was part of management's plan to reform the company.
The Caribbean Development Bank, said Bennett, has told WASA that the authority needs to increase water rates by 15% as a condition for approving a $35 million dollar loan for a system expansion project.
WASA has to demonstrate to the CDB that it can improve efficiency by that much, as an alternative to increasing rates, Bennett further commented. He said that the terminations at the smaller branches are a first step.
But the Water and Sewage Authority Workers Union, with a membership of almost 300, is not taking the matter lightly. On Tuesday, April 18, the union served the company a 21-day strike notice, protesting the recent firings. The Union's position is that unless the 16 workers are rehired, it will take industrial strike action.
The union, which was first informed of the terminations at 3:00 p.m. on Friday, is accusing WASA of violating Article 17 of the collective bargaining agreement, specifically, sections (F) and (G), which say that the services of employees cannot be terminated without reason, that union must be called in before termination and that management and union must reach an agreement.
Union president Russell Young told Amandala that management never consulted with them on the matter. They also claim that the first time they were aware of the terminations was last Friday, while the letters were already being handed to the fired employees.
This breach of agreement, said Young, comes shortly after the union and management had reached an understanding, with the intervention of Government officials, on a number of issues related to an education fund, a scholarship award, a salary proposal and the payment of pension scheme, among others.
Young, alleging that about 10 new employees have been hired since Friday, said that while management has not detailed what kind of "reorganization" will take place and how it will affect workers, indications are that this is just "a first phase" of the "reorganization."
"This is an ongoing exercise," Bennett concurred, adding that along with the terminations, WASA management has also restructured itself into three divisions, giving more importance to customer care and public relations.
Bennett admitted that new employees have been hired in Punta Gorda and Benque Viejo this week, and said that in his division (customer care and public relations), for example, there is need for more employees.
He said that while the union may not have been consulted on the "personnel changes," they were informed in March, in writing, of the pending reorganization of the company.
The union, displeased with the situation, had requested a meeting with management on Monday, but management later said they were unable to attend. Young said he would forward a letter to management today to ask them to reinstate the terminated officers. He said that they would otherwise have to await Government's arbitration, or strike in 20 days.
The Opposition, the United Democratic Party, has issued a press release "condemning the recent action taken by WASA to fire 16 employees."
"We are certain that this is purely political victimization," said the UDP.
Another section of the media, of the same date, claimed that "19 more are to go," because the total amount to be fired is 35.
Bennett denied this, saying that WASA is still trying to develop its new organizational framework, and so cannot say how many more workers will be terminated.