Today, First Caribbean Bank Branches across the country were closed - because no one showed up for work! The employees staged a sick out after they learned that the vesting act to transfer the bank's assets is going to the House of Representatives for approval next week.
And that's happening before the 60 employees and their union have finalized the terms of an exit package - basically how much they will be paid off by First Caribbean before they are sent home. So, the bank workers leveraged the only thing they've got left: their labour, to send a message to the owners of First Caribbean and the government - that the vesting of the bank's assets will deal a death blow to their bargaining power. CWU President Audrey Matura Shepherd told the media more today:...
Audrey Matura Shepherd, President - CWU
"Now that's very bad news for the employees because what it means that once they get that vesting act passed, basically First Caribbean has no other obligation to the employees. All 60 employees are concerned about one basic thing; when the bank closes, the will be left without a job. What First Caribbean has not told anyone is that 50% of their loans that they carry right now are from their own employees. So that means that 50% of their loans cannot be paid. Because 50% of those loans are being held by the employees who would be without a job. It is not true
that any of those employees are being offered any employment at Heritage Bank. We know that the Prime Minister said that the vast majority will be employed. That is not true. There is the most that has been communicated to us at the union, is that the bank, for Heritage Bank will be needing employees. But they can't commit that they will take any quantity of employees. So you could imagine how the employees feel knowing that Central Bank has given its approval, despite us writing and asking them to please at least liaise with us. Now we learnt that the government is going to passes this vesting act which makes it final. Once the vesting act is passed, that makes it final. It just for them to go through the semantics and the transition and so, 3;) the employees will be left without leverage to negotiate. We believe it's an intentional putting off of addressing our proposal so that it would buy time for the First Caribbean Bank to get what they want and leaving our employees without their ability to negotiate something decent for them to leave."
"They are speeding out so fast, they want to get and dump this asset. But at the same time they are doing more than just dumping an asset. They are gilting our employees, they are members of our union and they are not just employees, they are people who formed part of this community who are productive citizens of this community and who are voters and have a say."
"We have to make it knows because only the Prime Minister can stop this at this point. Its him who as the minister of finance has to go at the House on Tuesday and present this legislation and it is in his power now to say you know what I am going to put this off, I am going to be satisfied that they are negotiating, I am going to be satisfied that sixty of the workers, because those are the ones we represent, sixty voters may I remind him and sixty head of households are being affected and when you talk about 60 heads of households, you are talking about extensions of that family. So come Christmas, those people will not be having a Christmas. So that's one thing that will happen. The second one, definitely is that the only thing the workers have on their side is their labor. That bank cannot do the transaction to transfer anything from First Caribbean Bank to Heritage Bank without the skills and man power and time of the workers and that's a decision that the workers are determined what they will do with their labor."
But did they already decide what to do with their labour by staging a sickout today? Of course, sickouts are an informal - almost covert - type of industrial action - so Matura was deliberately vague about that one:
Audrey Matura Shepherd, President - CWU
"What I can tell you about this so called sickout is that if you were in the position of the employees and you find out on the 10th of September, the very day the whole country is celebrating, that not only has the governor given conditional approval, but your government, your Prime Minister, your Minister of Finance, to whom you would be writing is going passed a legislation without any prior discussion, written letter, nothing to the union that has ask you to consult - you could just imagine how they felt and the shock it has been. The coincidence that everybody got sick at the same time, it has to tell you the magnitude and the trauma they are going through. It didn't happened to only one. And so I could just imagine they all got sick indeed, because you would be sick to your stomach. How you could even worked? After you realize that all angles you've been sold out. Now is it morally right to hold back labor? Well I think when bread is being taken out of your mouth and just literally that's what happening - when bread is being taken out of your mouth, not by a poor man on the street, but a multi-national corporation with the aid of our Central Bank and our government, that what else would you do? There comes a time when people have to decide, I will fight or I will run and clearly these workers, debilitated by their illness will have to decide what they will do."
We tried, but could not get comment from the Governor of the central Bank. The vesting goes to the House for a special meeting next week Tuesday and Wednesday. The workers may choose to continue with some type of industrial action next week.
And so here's how it affected First Caribbean. Only two of five branches countrywide were opened. Those are Belize City and Dangriga and they both opened late. The branches in Belmopan, Orange Walk and at the Belcan bridge were not opened.
Country Manager Glen Smith told us they are quote, "taking steps to have a quick resumption to normal operations." He urges customers who need to make bank transactions to call into their branch, use internet banking, and use the ATM. He adds that the phones are being manned at all branches and all other questions can be referred to the main branch on Albert Street for alternatives.
We do know that today was payday for many government workers in Belmopan - and they found nothing transferred to their accounts.