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Feb 25, 1998

Striking workers want higher wages

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The protest action against the Citrus Company of Belize by a handful of its workers continued for a second day today in the Stann Creek Valley. While the placard bearing men and women braved the hot sun outside the company’s compound, union officials and management of the C.C.B. were feverishly working on a settlement behind closed doors. Today Patrick Jones traveled to Pomona to see what all the fuss was about.

The striking workers, say they are prepared to remain off the job until an amicable settlement is reached. While each party in the dispute remains resolute, at least they agree on a starting point.

Alvin Henderson, Assistant C.E.O., Citrus Company Of Belize

“It would appear to me Patrick, that an initial step in the resolution of this thing will be, ah, first look at wages.”

James McFoy, President, Christian Workers Union

“The major area that the workers are concerned with at this very point in time is the wages.”

Citrus Company of Belize officials say they were caught by surprise Tuesday when over a hundred grove and factory workers went on strike. Assistant C.E.O. Alvin Henderson, the Company and the Christian Workers Union were in the process of negotiating a new wage agreement to replace the one which expired last September. While the union is pushing to have the old agreement enforced until there is a new one, the C.C.B. isn’t budging.

James McFoy

“Well, our position at this point in time is that we want them to respect the old agreement and mainly the rates in that old agreement. We even went as far as to bend over and say that because of the terrible condition that these workers are working under, we are prepared to take a sixty cents for low growers and old growers ninety cents and also we want the factory and mechanic section to revert back to what wages are in the present agreement.”

Alvin Henderson

“There will be new wages. Whether we end up beneath, at or above those rates is a matter for negotiations. I will not even be presumptuous about how that will unfold. We have no pre-conceptions but to say that the old agreement is enforced, our position is resolute and that is, it is not enforced.”

But a letter dated December first, 1997 from the Labor Commissioner to the Union States in no uncertain terms that the old collective bargaining agreement is still valid since neither party had given written notice of any intention to terminate, modify or amend it prior to September thirtieth of last year.

Orlando Montero, C.W.U.

“As a responsible negotiate by that. As a responsible union we tell them like this, since you say that the old agreement is not enforced, let’s put the agreement to court and leave that aside. We will fight that otherwise. But then we want these workers to start to work on a different rate. If you can say these workers are getting two dollars an hour and you promise us we’ll give two dollars and twenty five cents an hour now to the workers, we can start by that but it doesn’t mean that we will continue that, but we will start by that then negotiate by that.”

The union is accusing the Citrus Company of taking advantage of the absence of a Collective Bargaining Agreement to cut wages which the workers say is already painfully low. That’s a claim that the C.C.B. flatly denies and says the decision to revisit the wage structure was taken only after all other options were exhausted.

James McFoy

“They are being cut when they feel like. Management maybe gets up today and say well we cannot pay this amount so we’ll cut that down, with no respect to the workers, nothing, union, nothing, will notifying anybody, just that your wages will be cut. As a matter of fact some of the workers are only taking home ten dollars a day and have family, at the end of the week sometimes seventy, seventy five dollars, they cannot live by that amount of money.”

Alvin Henderson

“Two issues though, one of them has been reaping rates. That has been an issue. This company has had a legacy over the last few years of having one of the highest reaping rates in the industry, that’s a statement of fact and one that can be easily verified. We came in this year there was a need to look at those rates because we were looking at a total disaster in the citrus industry early this year, in fact the citrus crop, that is in this case, let me clarify, the grapefruit crop that we have this year is a disaster. We are processing it in the factory because we don’t have a choice. but it is a total loss. So it was in light of all that reality that the company took a decision to look at the wage structure.”

While the issue of wages is the main focus of the picketing, it is not the only thing on the minds of the these workers. Their protest is also over the problem: sub-standard living conditions.

The strike has put the Citrus Company’s back against the wall, forcing workers who stayed on the job to work overtime in order to meet shipment deadlines. And Henderson says that if the strike continues into the weekend the company will be hard pressed to meet the next big shipment for export.

Q: “While the workers walk the picket line, what is it costing the company in dollars and sense?”

Alvin Henderson

“Patrick, we haven’t sat down and quantify that thing yet, but believe me the figure will be alarming.”

Patrick Jones

The impasse is costing each striking worker hundreds of dollars in lost wages while the company’s profit margins get dented by the hundreds of thousand. And with the numbers adding up with each passing hour, somewhere, somehow, someone will have to give in. From the village of Pomona in the Stann Creek Valley, Patrick Jones for News Five.

Late word from Pomona this evening is that the Citrus Company of Belize has put a new offer on the table. While the details of this latest effort at ending the strike have not been made public, an official of the C.C.B. says some positive strides are being made. Officials of the union were unavailable for comment.

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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