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CWU takes aim at Captain Watson

By Adele Ramos, Amandala Online, 26 March 2000

BELIZE CITY, Thurs. Mar. 23—Threatening to take industrial action in 21 days, the Christian Workers Union (CWU) on Monday served a notice on the Belize Port Authority on Monday, March 22, citing the "behavior (of the Scottish Ports Commissioner, Captain John J. Watson) towards the union and blatant disrespect and disregard for the current Collective Agreement" as reasons why the CWU was left "with no alternative" but to come to that position.

During last Wednesday's lunch hour, 57% of 75 workers who voted agreed with industrial action, confirms the union's president, James McFoy, whose signature appears on the notice. He told Amandala today that they are protesting a new offer put to the Port's 66 dockworkers by management because "any changes they wish to implement must be discussed between both parties."

McFoy contends that there has been no meeting between management and the union to renegotiate a new agreement even though the existing agreement expired on February 29, 2000 - 23 days ago.

Watson, in an interview with Amandala this afternoon, said that he is placing all workers, dock workers and office workers, under a "single agreement," something he said the union has opposed since the first time it was put on the table three months ago.

Currently, the 110 office workers and the 66 dockworkers are governed by two different agreements, with the dockworkers being entitled to fewer benefits than the office workers are.

On March 2, 2000, a proposal was made in writing to dockworkers for a new contract, to become effective April 1, 2000, with the option that they could remain under the old agreement if they wished. The "catch" was in an attached document which stated that the Terminal Section, under which all dockworkers are employed, will be renamed the Port Operations Section as of April 1, 2000, and all workers in that section will be governed by the new single agreement.

When we asked a group of dockworkers whom we interviewed with Watson's permission, whether that means that those who don't accept the offer will be released, they commented that they had put that same question to the union, but had received no reply.

The dockworkers say that they welcome the additional benefits, such as a holiday grant, a pension scheme, a day off in addition to double-time pay for holidays, and other perks, even if it means they do not get a salary increase. But the dockworkers are a minority, representing just 38% of the Port's workers, and the office workers, according to the Union, are calling for their overdue salary increase now.

A proposal for a 12% salary increase was put to management in writing, but management has opposed it. Watson told the newspaper that the demand is "outrageous" and would be "detrimental" to Belize's economy, speculating that the effect on the Port would be so substantial that the cost of bringing goods to Belize would have to go up.

In their last agreement with management, staff (office) workers were entitled to a 3% salary increase, and dockworkers report that their last increase amounted to 2.5%. They say that no worker got a raise in 1999, and this is probably the "bone of contention" between workers and management."

While the controversy on wages and a new agreement continues to brew, the Union, in a press release issued yesterday, is calling for "the instant removal of the Port Commissioner," with whom their relations have been sour since his appointment 8 months ago.

One board member told Amandala today that Watson, who he says "rules by intimidation" and who he alleges has made several attempts to fire workers for minor reasons (firings the board has had to overrule), should be replaced in April 1, 2000, with a Belizean Chief Operations Officer, Harry Bennett. He further commented that Watson has not yet complied with a directive from the board to inform Bennett of the offer.

Deputy chair of the Port's board of directors, Alberto Mahler, who was only informed of the notice today, says that Watson will stay until the expiration of his contract in two months. He informed us that a negotiating team comprised of Watson and some board members is now handling the matter, and the other board members will only intervene if necessary. Labour Commissioner Eden Bennett says he is aware of the union's notice served on Monday. He said that the union is only flexing its muscle and adds that the grievance machinery, under the existing agreement, allows for the matter to be taken to the Ministry of Labour as a second resort. As a last resort, the Prime Minister would appoint an arbitration tribunal to settle the dispute.

Such a tribunal, Bennett said, could be appointed in about one week, and once that tribunal is in place, it would mean that there could be no lockout or strike.

Watson was commissioned by the Inter-American Development Bank last June as a part of Government's program to explore the possibility of privatizing the Port. While the tension remains high at Port, Watson is mandated to train Bennett, his replacement, over the next two months and hand over to him before his departure at the end of May.