Belize Teachers Arrested As Strike Over Pay Cuts Continues

(CMC)— Police Commissioner Chester Williams has warned striking teachers from blocking the highway is an offence as two teachers were arrested and charged on Monday with “attempting to set a bon-fire without the permission of the police”.

But branch president of the Belize National Teachers Union (BTNU), Bay Riva, told reporters that the teachers from Benque, a westernmost town in Belize, were simply clearing the road.

“Well listen, as far as we are concerned those teachers were moving some tyres,” said Riva, adding “that is as far as that is concerned”.

Williams said that the teachers will appear in court soon. They were detained after several of them blocked the highway leading into the capital on Monday as the strike to protest the government’s plan to cut salaries enters its 17th day on Tuesday.

“As a matter of fact, we were able to detain four teachers in the Benque Area who were seen putting tyres on the highway and were about to light it on fire. Police caught them and they were arrested and charged. And they will be going to court for that,” Williams said.

The public servants and the teachers are at loggerheads with the new John Briceno government that announced plans to cut public officers’ salaries and increments, as well as other cuts to government purchasing in its first budget presentation. The budget was passed by Parliament late last month.

The government has announced plans to freeze increments and slashing salaries by 10 per cent for three years.

Williams said that the police were aware of the protest action by the teachers beforehand.

“As you know the teachers met and they voted on whether or not they accept the government’s proposal for the 10 per cent salary cut. And based on that, we were informed that the teachers rejected the proposal and decided that they were going to continue their industrial action

“One of such activity was to have the road blockages. We will continue to see how we can tiptoe or exercise restrain with these demonstrations, but I will say that it is very frustrating because at the end of the day, whatever it is that they are doing with these road blockages, it is creating significant inconvenience to the broader public.”

Williams said that people needed to get to work, airport and other places at a certain time were impacted by the industrial action.

“The citizenry is getting frustrated with it as well. So I would hope that the teachers are going to rethink this position. It is counterproductive and it is getting people frustrated and eventually, we will have to be not too hands-off and do what needs to be done to ensure that the highways are clear. “May I also remind the teachers that blocking the highway is an offence. It is obstructing the free flow of traffic. And while yes we have been very patient and we have exercised restraint, when the public gets too frustrated, then we will have to ensure that something is done to allow traffic to flow and get people to where they need to get within a reasonable time,” the Police Commissioner said.

Williams also reminded the population that new regulations, including extending the curfew by 30 days, under the existing state of emergency (SOE) had come into existence over the last weekend

“My duty is to enforce the laws. But as a matter of courtesy, being fair to people, I saw the need to inform them of the extension of the curfew,” he added.

Meanwhile, BTNU president,, Elena Smith, is blaming Prime Minister Briceno for escalating the industrial action.

She told television viewers here that the Prime Minister’s decision to address the nation instead of meeting with the Joint Unions Negotiating Team, last week gave the impression that the union leadership was not being entirely transparent with the information being conveyed.

“It did hurt and we have been hearing comments that this was done because the leaders were not presenting to the membership all the information and that is no way true, any at all.

“As a matter of fact, the other leaders can tell you that because we have presented our members the entire package, just as they have given us, we have been accused by our own members of supporting the government, of trying to force them to accept what the government is saying and all of those kinds of comments because we go to them and present to them exactly what the government side presents to us,” she said.

Chief Magistrate Sharon Fraser, who is also the president of the Association of Public Service Senior Managers (APSSM), also spoke on the issue.

“We received a letter of government’s undertaking with various things that they have committed to. While the letter was sent to the three of us by the Cabinet Secretary, we are of the view that it was addressed to the country and the world.

“In fact, this information was put out there before any of us had an opportunity to look at it, to share it with members to be able to get a sense of where they were or would have been prior to the meeting that we had on Thursday. So that, I can say for me, I didn’t even get a chance to read it when in fact the Prime Minister was on the air talking about what was in there, so that I would have had no opportunity to speak to my members and at the end of the day,” she said.

“I had said to them, “Well, what can I say? The Prime Minister had said it all.” I think this might have upset some members because the feeling was that if there was a joint team that was meeting with the ministers in this matter and yet while I cannot say it wasn’t sent to us, what I can say is that at least for me, everybody else would have heard it.”