It’s reminiscent of the biblical story of young shepherd David bringing down mighty Goliath with a slingshot. It should also have been a surprise for the company when the small and combative Belize Workers’ Union (BWU), an IUF affiliate and long-term friend of this writer, overwhelmingly won the vote of 95 contract workers, who on 18 July decided that the union will represent them in their dealings with the employer, the Belize Sugar Industries (BSI), where the American Sugar Refining (ASR), the world’s largest refiner, controls a majority stake.
Over the years the BSI has introduced several rounds of retrenchment, which affected the potential membership for the union, but it also undermined the union by promoting employees to non-unionisable categories. The combined effect of these processes was a pronounced decline in union membership, from close to 500 members in the 1990s to 165 in 2013. The recent vote would increase union membership to 260.
In the early years of the XXI Century, BSI resumed the planting of sugar cane in some fields, and hired workers on a contract basis; these are the 95 workers who participated in the poll. They are involved mostly in field work, such as planting, cutting, sparing, weeding, and spreading of fertilizers; some are in supervisory taks (“field captains”) and others are heavy duty operators and drivers.
And here comes the tricky language. The company says it hires the 95 workers on a “contract FOR service” basis, which gives it the upper hand when individually dealing with each worker: the company can revise conditions as it pleases (as the BWU says, it’s a “take it or leave it” offer), but can also decide on some conditions, like the workers having to pay for the personal protective equipment (PPE), and when it rains, they are sent home without pay. This has been happening for some five years, says the BWU.
But the National Tripartite Boday (NTP), which conducted the poll, offered a different opinion of the contract situation of the 95. Theirs, the BWU argues and the NTP agrees, is a “contract OF service” not a “contract FOR service”. Do the readers spot the difference?
A contract FOR service is when a client buys a specific service supplied by an agent, who completes the job or task according to the client’s specifications. A contract OF service is a different story: it’s a relationship between an employer and an employee, where, among other conditions, the employer controls the job or tasks to be performed in a given place and time based on a job description, and has to comply with statutory rights, such as holiday pay, sick pay, and others. This is what happens with the 95 workers: they are not hired by outside contractors; the BSI is their employer, who also pays for holidays, vacation, and make social security contributions.
In the days preceding the vote of 18 July, the BSI issued a statement, trying to dissuade the workers from giving the BWU their representation. Towards the end of the statement the BSI includes the phrase: “The contract persons should consider… whether in fact they do need a third party to represent them rather than direct dealings with the Company.” From the 95 contract workers, 89 actually cast their vote, 83 were in favour, 5 against, and 1 vote was spoilt. That was the workers’ answer.
Supporting the BWU and the 95 contract workers is a great opportunity to continue building an ASR union network, one of the tasks proposed for the IUF Global Sugar Program.
With thanks to the Belize Workers’ Union (BWU) for providing information and photos.