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Labor Ministry plucks trained arbitrators from WASA tribunal

The Reporter, 21 May 2000

Two members of the tribunal set up to solve the WASA dispute were this week dropped from the tribunal, leaving them to wonder if their record of standing up for unionism was the reason for their replacement.

The replacement of Eduardo Melendez, president of the National Trade Union Congress, and Margarita Burrowes was announced Wednesday, after a scheduled tribunal hearing, open to the public, was postponed at the last minute. The session will be held on Tuesday, May 23, and will now be closed to the public.

The replacements on the tribunal are BEL's Business Development Manager Michael Polonio and NTUCB Administrative Secretary Randolph Johnson.

The tribunal had been set up on May 8 to avert a strike on May 9 by WASA's Workers Union. The tribunal, was to determine if WASA's management breached its collective agreement with the union when it fired 16 workers in April.

The reason given for the postponement of Wednesday's session is that both Burrowes and Melendez will be representing Belize at the annual conference of the International Labour Organization in Geneva, Switzerland. The conference is scheduled to begin May 30.

"The last ILO conference I attended was in 1997, and if we could have missed completely the conferences in '98 and '99, certainly it would not have mattered if we were late for this year's conference," Burrowes told Reporter Thursday. "The Minister of Labour (Hon. Valdemar Castillo) would not leave Belize until June 3, which is when the real tripartite business sessions of the conference begin."

Burrowes added: "As to (the reason of) not being able to leave until May 29 (government's reason), if we had remained on the tribunal, there is no guarantee that the tribunal would have taken the full 21 days to resolve the WASA dispute. (Or) if we could not have attended the ILO conference, alternates could have been sent."

Melendez told Reporter he tried what he could to stay on the tribunal but to no avail.

He said: "I was nominated to attend the ILO conference from last November, and the Ministry of Labour, which makes the travel arrangements, has had my passport for over two weeks now (even before Melendez was appointed to the tribunal). I had even offered to work right through the holiday weekend to speed the resolution of the dispute, as I am scheduled to travel on May 25."

Burrowes said that both she and Melendez were trained in Costa Rica in a six-week seminar for public labour relations and are probably the two people in Belize most conversant with the procedures of tripartite arbitration, which is exactly what the tribunal will be doing.

Melendez told Reporter that although Burrowes was originally appointed to represent employers on the tribunal, WASA's management was not happy about her representing them, and said so in a tribunal orientation meeting Monday.

According to Melendez, WASA's management felt that Burrowes would have more represented the interests of employers who are members of the Belize Chamber of Commerce and Industry, which is private sector organization. WASA is a quasi-government body and is not a member of BCCI.

Labour Commissioner Edney Bennett said Thursday that he made the decision to close the tribunal's hearing to the public. A decision WASA?s management had asked for Monday. Melendez and the tribunal chairman Herbert Lord had argued for it to be open to the public.

WASA's management could not be reached for comment.

Bennett said, "It is normal practice for these hearings to be held 'in camera,' and so I advised (the chairman) that the tribunal hearings be held in camera. When the hearings are finished, only the final decision is made public when it is released to the press."

Russell Young, president of WASA's workers union told Reporter that although he's disappointed that Melendez and Burrowes were taken off the tribunal, he's expecting their replacements to be fair.

"I believe that they (Polonio and Johnson) are people of integrity who will listen to the facts," Young said. "(However) I'm sorry we lost the first two persons, because they were qualified."

Melendez raises questions about Polonio?s ability to be impartial and said that WASA had commissioned BEL to submit a proposal for BEL meter readers to use BEL computer technology to record WASA?s meter readings; as well, for BEL to serve as collection agents for WASA.

The tribunal, meanwhile, which according to law was given 21 days, starting May 9, to solve the dispute, has little over a week to stave off a union strike.