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Feb 4, 2005

GOB negotiators describe talks with unions

Story PictureOne holds an impressive resume with stints as a politician, historian, diplomat, cabinet minister and Prime Minister’s best friend. The other is an expert in public finance and administration, former Deputy Secretary General of CARICOM and current financial secretary. Together Assad Shoman and Dr. Carla Barnett form Government’s frontline negotiating team in the current dispute with the unions. This evening they held a press conference to give their version of what happened over the last few days. The late hour prevents much coherent packaging, but here’s a sample of what they had to say.

Assad Shoman, Government Negotiator
?Let me put it this way, I am not very good at it but I like playing Ping-Pong. But now when I throw the ball over the little Ping-Pong when it comes back it?s a little tennis ball and when I manage to get that over it comes back as a football. Before it comes back as a basketball, I?m leaving that table and I said that to the union members. Didn?t I? I said I am not here to play Ping-Pong. Are we serious or not? And what I was thinking–because the truth is as I told you, that?s the plain truth–what they asked for is what they got. They got a yes; a hundred percent yes. And I was thinking what part of yes they don?t understand. You know what I?m saying? So, what am I suppose to do now wait for the basketball to hit me in the head??

Stewart Krohn
?Are you convinced that you are negotiating with people who are negotiating in good faith? Or do you think that they have something else in mind that you may be speaking two different languages??

Assad Shoman
?Well, I put that to them in the course of this meeting fairly earlier on. I said there are two things we could be talking about here. At least we could be talking about removing the government referring to what one of the union leaders had said earlier or we could be talking about a legitimate dispute between the unions and the government. If the former is involved, we are not in that game. If it is the latter, it?s important to know what the dispute is. So I said to the union leaders, to my mind, the dispute is the following: that there is a dispute over the allocation of resources that the government collects taxes and uses that money and spends it in a certain way. Traditionally, that has always been done secretly. No government has ever revealed its budget or how it intends to tax or how it intends to spend those taxes until the day of the budget. This time, the secrecy was relaxed and there was some discussion before. And what the government is now saying that if you are saying that you have a right to talk to the government about what taxes is going to be imposed; how much is going to be taxed; what particular taxes are going to be used and if you have a right to tell the government how it?s going to spend the money and what you think government will listen to you? Well what I have to tell you, the answer is yes. This government is prepared to accept that the people have that right to state their opinion and to have it heard and that right belongs to all the people. It?s not just to the Chamber of Commerce; it?s not just to the unions; it?s all people in all communities in this country and we have to develop a mechanism to allow that to be done effectively. I said so is that?s what the dispute is about? They said yes, that is it. I said good, we can talk and then the meeting proceeded. So I have no reason now to question. What they told me was their agenda.?

Rene Mendez, Love
?Monday is the start of another work week as such. What would you like to see come Monday and are you saying that it is totally up to the unions now to start anew on Monday??

Assad Shoman
?It?s up to the people. I am hoping. We haven?t seen anything back from the unions. We haven?t had a formal response from them. I am hoping that yes, everything would be back to normal as from tomorrow. I can?t predict. I don?t know what the unions will decide to do.?

?You know when I was talking to teachers for example, just generally about education, I said to them, you have been very militant in this situation and I really wish you never lose that militancy and that you use it to get the same things we are talking about here in education; better conditions for special education, nutrition for the children and so on. You must all be fighting to improve these things but in a militant way because that is necessary. I believe in the militancy of unions that is directed towards the improvement of the lives of their members.?

Dr. Carla Barnett, Government Negotiator
?When I came back, I came back because I wanted to come back to Belize. Belize is where I?m from. I have never ever quite left Belize even when I was in Guyana for that long time, I came back at least once a year sometimes two, three times because you know I am Belize and Belize is me. One of the very first things that I became involved in and I didn?t come back to go into government. I came back privately and went into the private sector and started to do my own work as a consultant and as a farmer. I have a farm. That?s what I like to do more than anything else. One of the first things I became involved in was the issue of governance improvement; good governance. I began to talk about that with Assad as a matter of fact. I decided to do it because I knew there were certain reforms that were best made from the inside and people have to understand sometimes the ways systems work in order to be able to implement reforms in meaningful ways. So I came in on the inside. It is a tremendous amount of change that we have to make in Belize; about the way we organise our society. The whole discussion with the unions–I think when Minister Assad and he doesn?t like me to call him minister–but when Assad put the nature of the dispute to the unions in the way he conceptualised it as one being a dispute over resources and the way resources are allocated from who to whom. I think that put it in a slightly different perspective for the unions as well because essentially that is what it is about and that kind of dispute is really what the whole society is engaged in. It?s not only about the resources that government control. It?s about the national resources and it?s essentially that. I can?t clear up the confusion in peoples? minds because I would admit a fair amount of confusion myself. But I would offer that there is no way of coming out of the confusion if we do not remain engaged with one another and working it through and differing where we need differ, but always maintaining that really the most fundamental thing is to keep our country.?

Shoman and Barnett both said they would be available for work over the weekend should the need arise. As for parents who want to know about school on Monday, stay tuned to your favourite radio station.

Viewers please note: This Internet newscast is a verbatim transcript of our evening television newscast. Where speakers use Kriol, we attempt to faithfully reproduce the quotes using a standard spelling system.

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