Shrimp Cleaners At Bze Aquaculture Want An Hourly Wage, Mgmt Says Piece Work

One story that we haven't covered this week is the labour dispute at Belize Aquaculture Limited. That's the Shrimp Farm near Placencia formerly owned by the Bowen and Bowen Group which is now a joint enterprise with a foreign investor.

But new management, new rules - which forced 70 workers to walk off the shrimp packing line on Monday.

Our friends from PLUS TV were there and they got both sides of the story:

Jules Vasquez Reporting

Belize Aquaculture Limited recently resumed operations after a two year shutdown.

But to make the operation profitable this time around, the new management says workers have to produce on a contract basis - which means the end of hourly pay:

David Griffith - General Manager, Belize Aquaculture Limited
The regional standards are about seven and a half pounds per hour, per person. That's obviously with people who have been doing it for a few years and have experience. In Belize we're probably averaging about half of that, maybe a little bit more than half that. Well, what we've decided to do is establish a contract that would pay people based on their hourly performance. And we know from other operations - I've worked in other countries - we know that 7 pounds and hour is very manageable. We haven't seen that out of very many people yet, but I think that's because they were on an hourly wage rather than a piecework rate."

That change drove 70 women to walk off the job on Monday:

Employee, Belize Aquaculture Limited
"Because we are not actually walking away from our jobs, we're only exercising our rights. We want to see if the manager would have changed his mind to continue pay us our day pay. That's the reason why we're all here. It's not that we don't want to work or anything like that, but we don't think that it's fair to be working for 25 cents or 50 cents per pound."

Employee, Belize Aquaculture Limited
"They are comparing us to Honduras. They say that the people from Honduras do so much shrimp for the hour."

Julia Bonilla - Employee, Belize Aquaculture Limited
"If it's by contract, let them have their job. We're not going to work for that. We're not going to work for $20 or $15 a day."

Delsi Estrada- Employee, Belize Aquaculture Limited
"To days straight, we were at 10 cents a pound for zipping, and since we were making over a hundred dollars for the day, they came to us and said that we're getting 5 cents per pound. So what sense does that make to get 5 cents per pound, while we were at 10 cents. We would have to work over 1,000 pounds to get at least a $50 dollars for the day, while we were earning $100 for the day."

Employee, Belize Aquaculture Limited
"1 hour and a half, at $50 cents per pound, 6 pounds, that's 3 dollars in 1 hour and a half, sometimes almost 2 hours that I take with that tray of shrimp. In 9 hours' time, what will I make? I will not make anything."

The management says that if the workers produce efficiently - they can make more than minimum wage:

David Griffith
"The better peelers that we have are definitely earning more than minimum wage."

Employee, Belize Aquaculture Limited
"The Minister of Labour said that we, who work in the agriculture field and domestic work, are supposed to get $3.30 per hour. That is what we want. That is the reason why we are out here. We left our children and our homes to come out here and make a living, so that we can provide for our children, and that's all that we are asking for, the $3.30 an hour that the Government of Belize say that we should get, that's it."

David Griffith
"A fair day's wage implies that you do a fair day's work, and in many cases, that's not happening."

Both sides ended the week still in a dispute:

Julia Bonilla
"I believe that they are trying to get rid of us."

David Griffith
"They haven't given it an opportunity."

The position going into Monday is that the Labour Commissioner has intervened and met with both sides of the dispute. First, he has ruled that the piece work is not illegal.

Second, he found that the workers were not given adequate notice of their terms of service. Third, the women can go back to work on Monday - but they have to accept that they will work on a contract basis.

Channel 7