Relations between Port of Belize Limited and some stevedores is still rocky after workers refused to unload a sugar barge at 6:00 am on Monday, Feburary 23rd.
The team, comprising of 34 workers, refused to board the boat to unload the barge anchored seven miles out because they claimed the water they are being given in plastic pouches was making them sick.
Raymond Rivers, an executive member of the stevedores, told The Reporter that they have consistently complained about the water given to them in “shilling” pouches. He says they have done research on the internet which shows that when the water is stored in hot areas for a prolonged period of time, toxins are released from the plastic. Rivers insists that many stevedores have gotten sick from drinking the water and are demanding the water be supplied in five-gallon containers.
There are also peripheral issues, including the provision of an emergency boat on standby in the event that stevedores are injured…and there are the usual complaints of substandard food and treatment which are supposedly being ironed out in the negotiation of a collective bargaining agreement. But on Monday, the main complaint was the water, which Rivers says constitutes a serious health concern.
Port of Belize Limited CEO, Arturo “Tux” Vasquez was made aware of the concern that morning, when the sugar ship waiting offshore could not be loaded from the sugar barge. He told us that stevedores have been given water in plastic pouches for some time now because it is more practical. They used to provide water in five-gallon containers, but that brought its own problems, including containers being stolen, falling off the barge, and difficulties with dispensing.
Vasquez disputes the assertion about the water in plastic pouches being a health concern, because he says that PBL does not store pouches for any length of time. In fact, he says, PBL does not have any storage space or area for water. Vasquez insists that the water in pouches is bought fresh daily, and says he’s willing to prove that to the stevedores if he has to.
Stevedores were scheduled to return to the sugar ship at 2:00 p.m., and because they contended that they would not work until their demand for water in five gallon containers was met, CWU President, Audrey Matura-Shepherd was brought in to meet with PBL officials.
At the end of the meeting, which ended at about 3:30 p.m., the parties reached a temporary compromise. PBL agreed to provide water in five-gallon containers, on the condition that CWU takes full responsibility for those containers. Matura-Shepherd agreed on behalf of the union, for a probation period, after which they will revisit the practice to see if it can be extended for the longer term.
With that, stevedores were able to work the afternoon shift and the near-crisis situation was averted. But the industrial action, however short-lived, highlights the urgency for a comprehensive collective bargaining agreement at the Port.