November 20, 2005
Some of you will think this column is about being unable to pay utility bills and having to pay reconnection fees. But just so you know, its bigger than that. Its about consumer exploitation and even reverse poverty alleviation. Or should we say, poverty perpetuation.
For one could make the case that the disconnection/reconnection policy for the utility companies is one where the poor and working poor are being fleeced in Belize. Reconnection fees for the utilities hit the poor the hardest and account for millions of "parallel market" dollars being shipped overseas. Hence the disconnect between the politicians' manifesto pledges to reduce utility fees and the people who gave them their mandate.
In the developed world you never hear of customers being disconnected for being late in paying their utility bills. Not even for being several months behind. The "Mal Pagos" end up getting on the bill collectors list and losing their credit rating and standing. In the developing world, this matters. Increasingly it is beginning to matter in Belize too, as credit services and banks now cross check and blacklist bad credit risks.
People do get disconnected, eventually, but they have to be pretty far behind, and this only happens in the more impoverished areas of certain big cities. In Belize, the consumer is automatically treated like an impoverished inner city hard pay customer by all the utility companies. It matters not that you have a steady job, or even that you have had an account for the past 20 years or more. Everyone is guilty, everyone is fair game and everyone gets visited by the economic hit men sent out into the neighborhoods to do the dirty work while they are at work. Their partners in the dispatch zone take the heat, sometimes refusing to even answer the phones at all at the height of the disconnection frenzy.
The goal is not to help consumers access modern conveniences or to use these more efficiently, consume less. It is not even to help them come up with a payment plan if they get in out of their depth . The goal is to collect as much in reconnection fees as possible. The market is so small after all and it costs too much to hook up new clients. It is so much easier, and more lucrative to hit the existing customers over and over again.
They act, these monoliths, with impunity. A BTL clerk is unable to close one customer's account and credit another's with a $250 security deposit while the second account is strapped and the first immediately cut off. Yet, her superiors can sanction the transfer of hundreds of millions of dollars to phantom cambios, lose it, and no one in charge is disconnected.
There is indeed a serious disconnect. Between the users of BTL services and the users of BTL.
How did we get in such a position where utility companies became laundromats? And how many other companies have soap on their hands?
Is money being washed behind the dam? How much leakage was there at BWSL, not detectable along the pipeline? Or did the owners find it just too difficult and too risky to get the US or pounds sterling they needed and turned off the faucet?
Who will buy the well rinsed 'puss eena bag' this time around? For we all know it will not be nationalized for long..
Why does any of this matter? Aren't Belizeans completely immune to the thefts and misappropriations? Do we care anymore? Yes, we care. Especially if the pickpockets target us.
Yes, we care if on the one hand our government is pledging to the outside world that it is working to alleviate poverty, when inside Belize it is facilitating the erosion of our disposable household income? Why should we care about the alleged external shocks, when the internal ones hit us so much harder every time we go to the gas pump, grocery shop, or to pay a utility bill?
Our already small middle class, those who do not get the "social rate" for their utilities, now find a greater and greater portion of their salaries going to pay for their 'light and water'. More and more people are finding it harder to meet the payment deadlines, the reconnection fees, and the infamous security deposits.
Coupled with the rising cost of food, the outlandish tax on fuel, and the coming GST more and more Belizeans are sliding into poverty than climbing out of it.
Do they know, the politicians who sign for their fuel and fill out vouchers for their lunches, dinners and drinks, where the "little people" get the change to fill their tanks, or the children's stomachs? Do they, who wipe cake crumbs off their faces and lick frosting from their fingers, remember eating Creole bread and bun with Wood and Dunn?
Yes, there is a major disconnect between our pleas abroad to help alleviate our poverty, forgive our international debt and the poverty being caused by the piratization of our utility companies. It is no coincidence Belize became a "heavily indebted poorer country" at the same time we began selling off our assets, over and over again.
No, this is not about paying bills late or being disconnected, about losing 'light and water', its about losing sight of the role utility companies should play in national development, in helping people to improve their businesses and make their homes more livable.
None of which should cost us a small fortune. Or make people poorer than they already are.