From Punta Gorda: In the second of three blog posts, Rachel Simon explores indigenous land rights and social issues in southern Belize. Rachel spent time in Belize recording voices of indigenous community land rights activists for LAB’s forthcoming book, Voices of Latin America.
‘”Teechaz gat yuh bak” means we will stand up for what is right. We will fight for you and ensure that you are properly protected, whether it’s from management, ministry or the Government of Belize.’ I’m grabbing a moment with Antony Fuentes, former Belize National Teacher’s Union (BNTU) President, and current Vice President of Toledo Region.
We’re meeting in Punta Gorda’s central park, eight days into a nationwide teacher’s strike and the night before he travels to Belize City with other BNTU representatives to meet with Prime Minister Dean Barrow. In between pamphleting and organising permits with the police for public demos and prayer vigils, Antony tells me how broken promises on salary adjustment, and a string of government corruption issues drove teachers to strike, petitioning the government with an eight point charter of demands on pay, conditions and corruption.
The previous week I had watched the BNTU Toledo Rural Region of teachers march around the town in their neon green t-shirts, led by a pickup-drawn sound-system pumping out messages and motivational tunes.
BNTU, one of three teaching unions in Belize has a particularly strong presence in Toledo District and Punta Gorda town, but with 3,000 members throughout Belize, the country’s largest and strongest union was able to leave most schools across the country closed or partially closed from 3rd to the 19th October. Demonstrations also occurred in the capital at the weekends, attracting over 3,000 attendees.
Protecting people from government corruption may seem like an unusual focus for a teachers’ strike. But taking action to protect the national interest is instilled in the BNTU constitution, and it’s a highly politically active union, having played a crucial part in the country’s national strikes in 2005.
To put the salary demand into context, teachers in Belize have to pay for classroom materials out of their own salary, as well as a $10 per month ‘management’ fee. In the Q’eqchi Maya village of Crique Sarco outside Punta Gorda, the Vice Principal Javier Coy explained that on top of this those working at grant aided schools which are not fully government funded (church schools for example) do not receive a full pension. Multigrade schools, where one teacher will have to cope with children of multiple ages in one classroom, are also a particular issue in rural regions.
The backdrop for their struggle to find the funds deliver a good education for their pupils is a declining economy and increasing divide between the rich and the poor. The delay in a promised 3% pay increase coincided with a string of high profile corruption incidents in July to August. These ranged from the lurid – ministers’ links to the murder of a former trade union activist Pastor Lucas – to bribes and expenses scandals including pay-outs for new ministerial cars. These helped spur BNTU to take strike action, and corruption took centre stage in their dispute, representing four of their eight demands. These include signing the UN Convention Against Corruption (Belize is one of few countries in the world which have not signed up to it); setting up a Senate Select Committee to investigate corruption incidents; and launching an Integrity Commission, ‘demands the entire Belizean population is clamouring for’ explains Antony.
‘We love our students and we want to go back to the classroom.’ Javier and Antony are clear that the strike and demands were designed for the benefit of the whole country, not just teachers. ‘The present administration won on the grounds of good governance, accountability and transparency. Right now they are enacting the opposite. We want them to stick to their promises to the people,’explained Javier. And as well as the demands on corruption the charter includes a call for an amendment to social security cover for all public workers, not just teachers.
During the strike ministers were accused of union-busting, intimidation and coercion to get teachers back in the classroom, and Antony explains that the BNTU came under fire from ministers who argued that teachers don’t have the wisdom, the ability and the competence to deal with national issues – despite the fact that unions including the BNTU played a major part in propelling the present centre right United Democratic Party into government after a national strike against the old administration in 2005.
Public figures such as the Archbishop of Belize and the Police Superintendent spoke out in favour of the strikes, and parents were largely supportive. Although other unions and the Belize Chamber of Commerce voiced their support (the Chamber of Commerce discussing a one day shut down of businesses in Belize), they did not join them in strike action and teachers decided to return to the classroom on 19th October, on a majority vote in a BNTU ballot, after the government promised progress on some of their governance demands, and an interest payment on the salary increase deferral.
BNTU representatives say they will be continuing to watch the government and hold them to account. Weeks after strike action was called off, teachers held a national rally in the capital Belmopan, to celebrate their successes, but also to protest at the proposal to deny them payment for the strike days.
The Minister for Education is battling to deny teachers pay for their 11 days out of the classroom, but many teachers argue they have agreed to make up the lost time with their local educational management bodies. Whilst teachers received a full pay packet at the end of October, they will have to wait for November’s payment to find out whether they will be penalised for their attempts to stand up to the Government of Belize.
Note: You can find a link to the BNTU demands here.