And while the Civil Aviation was working all the way up to this evening to normalize operations at the PGIA's Air Traffic Control Tower, the management of the Port of Belize had to bargain with the water front workers, over, water. The stevedores say Port Management is giving them pouches of water - and they want five gallon bottles. Now, if you are familiar with the pouches, they are the 25 cent bags.
Their issue is that whenever the bag water is stored in heat or direct sunlight, it makes them sick. Hanging in the balance is a sugar ship - fourteen thousand tonnes which takes weeks to load. Loading was supposed to start this morning, but the stevedores refused to do it without the five gallon water.
7News was there when the stevedores gathered outside the gate, and we spoke with Raymond Rivers, the leader of one of the work gangs,. Here's how he explained the issues:
"We know how the sugar industry is working and a ship came already and is already full with 8,000 tons of sugar and went. We are working closely with Port and in good faith with Mr. Tux Vasquez and Ms. Francine to keep this thing between stevedores and PBL under. No lot of noise, but we have a health issue now where Mr. Tux Vasquez, he doesn't want to change the water for us and we are telling him that the twenty-five cents water that he sent out, the way how they store it and the way how they package it, its unhealthy for the workers. And the next issue now is an emergency boat that should be stationed beside a sugar ship, just in case of emergency of a stevedore get hurt. These are the two issues that we sent in letters. We even come and talk to the warehouse manager. We even talked to the Port management, but they are not working under the memorandum of understanding and they are working in bad faith. So, this morning, we stand up and we say that we need the water to be changed. I firsthand, I was up in a crane 30 feet driving, I drank one of the water and I was about to faint up there, because there is something with the water and my body - it just not working. So, it's a concern. We are not getting crazy. We are not dunce, but we need to know that it's a health issue happening here and people can get cancer off of this."
So, the executive of the Christian Workers Union got involved, realizing that discord in industrial relations could result from this dispute. They got an opportunity to meet with Arturo Tux" Vasquez, the receiver of the port, and this evening, CWU President Audrey Matura-Shepherd told us that a temporary resolution has been reached:
Audrey Matura-Shepherd, President - CWU
"As the union, we came out to have a meeting with the management, because we believe the issue that the stevedores were having about them getting water in pouches as opposed to the bottle water, may seem on the face of it minor, but it's a minor issue that can balloon into a bigger issue and it can't be minor when you are thinking about people's health and safety. So, I am glad that management was able to have an impromptu meeting with us and as a result we were able to reach an interim agreement. An interim agreement is in the nature that, for today, tomorrow and Wednesday, the stevedores will the provided with bottled water and the reason for that is as union, I ask for time to go consult with all the members, that that's what they want, especially since the Port is saying 'we are prepared to give you all the bottled water, on one condition and that condition is that if those bottles go missing as they've done in the past, that we want to know that you all will take responsibility and pay for them or to replace them.' With that in mind, clearly then, that the union, using the stevedores money or the stevedores salary, would have to be duct to be able to pay for that. Anytime it means that I am going to make a decision about someone's money, I will not make a unilateral decision. So, while we had union representatives there, members of different gangs there, it's important that I go back to the general membership and that's what we've done. To be able to get the work done today, as you notice, the men, they are not here anymore. They already went on board the vessel and they are working and they are satisfied that they got their bottled water and it's an interim agreement until we have full consultation."
"Ma'am, for those of the public, when they see it on the news tonight, say, but why stevedored making such a big deal off water. Isn't money being lost?"
Audrey Matura-Shepherd, President - CWU
"I don't think they will see it as trivial, because you have to understand what the workers are saying. Anybody who has been reading up will know that when you leave water in plastic bags and the heat touches it or it's stored for a while, that heat then causes toxins to seep out from the plastic bag. That is cancer causing or carcinogenic and the working have been complaining that they feel sick after that drink this water, because it's so warm that it stays in that pouch. The union had written the Port about that issue already."
We spoke with Tux Vasquez who confirmed that, yes, the Port and the CWU have arrived at a temporary resolution to return to the bottle system. He explained to us that they used to use only bottles, but bottles started going missing, and there were also sanitation issues. He says that the union and port management decided on this change over a year and a half ago, and it has worked so far, but because the workers want this change now, the port has agreed to it with the conditions that the union will have to bear the cost if the bottles are lost.