Today marks the sixth day of ongoing protests by the BNTU - but today it's also their first day of strike action.
So while last week, the teachers were finding time in between classes to come out with their signs, today they simply walked out of those classrooms.
The teachers staged this walk out at 11:30am across the country - and those doing online classes joined in virtually.
And from their classroom, the members of the Belize branch marched to the Marion Jones Stadium to begin their trek through the Belize City Streets. Courtney Menzies followed them along their route, and has this story.
The green sea today flooded the streets of Belize City as the BNTU members commemorated their first official day of strike with a protest march.
And when asked how long this strike action will last, well, it's going to be a while.
Elena Smith, President, BNTU "Teachers? How far are you willing to go?"
Response "ALL THE WAY!"
This march, which started at the Marion Jones Stadium, first began with some of the teachers walking out of the classrooms that have barely just opened, less than two weeks ago. BNTU president Elena Smith explained that until the government budges, they won't either.
Elena Smith, President, BNTU "Today is our first day of strike, this morning our teachers went to school, did their work as they normally would and then they walked off at 11:30 so this is the beginning of a start to however long it will take us to get what it is that we want."
"The BNTU is calling on the prime minister to take his ten off the table. We are also calling on the prime minister to remove that 6 or 8 months they are saying to implement these good governance issues. So if you want to call off, let's call off. You want me to go back then you move back as well and you do what you have to do."
But what about the students who have already endured a year of online classes and now don't even have that option to get their daily lessons in. Smith said that the teachers have been working all this time, and now it's time to take action.
Elena Smith, President, BNTU "We want to make it very clear that whatever has happened has nothing to do with us as teachers. Nobody could have controlled what would have happened. And so we know that COVID is not our fault but COVID is here, and despite that, during the entire COVID period, our teachers have been working. As a matter of fact up to this morning, our teachers submitted all of their work, submitted packages, submitted work online so their students got work today."
And Smith also further emphasized that their fight is not a selfish one - it's not just about the salary cuts but corruption within the government on a whole. And because of this, they feel they have the people's support.
Elena Smith, President, BNTU "We are saying this time, as we have done before, that this is not just about the ten, this is about our country, so the ten is on the table, the ten is important to us, but good governance is also important to us because if we had that we wouldn't be where we are today. So if we don't get that sorted out we will be here next year, three years from now, five years from now, ten years from now, and we want to ensure that our fight, that we are doing better for our country, to put our country in a better position than it is right now."
"A lot of the people out there have said that they support us because they know we have been out there championing this cause of good governance and so despite the fact that they might not support us in other things, they support us for that position that we have taken and always taken."
So what would it take for the strike to come to an end? President Smith says the government needs to come back to the negotiation table with good intentions - and proof of them.
Elena Smith, President, BNTU "Tell them come to the table, bring some concrete solutions to the issues we are having right now, come to us seriously, bring the draft to us and then we can talk."
Opposition members joined in on today's protest - former UDP councilor candidate, Shane Williams, Port Loyola Standard Bearer, Philip Willoughby, former mace bearer Brian "Yellowman" Audinett and even the former UDP mayoral candidate, Orson Picart.
Following the meeting, the BNTU met to discuss further action that they would be taking throughout the rest of the week.
The Belize National Teachers Union took the streets today in their first day of protest. How like will the Union sustain this protest action? And, will their decision to protest further affect students’ academic development during an already trying year? News Five’s Paul Lopez followed the teachers in Belize City today to learn more. Here is that report.
To stand shoulder to shoulder in solidarity with the Belize National Teachers Union today meant walking for approximately two hours at high noon. B.N.T.U.’s Belize District Branch took the streets of Belize City in a protest march that started at the entrance of the Marion Jones Sporting complex and ended in the Yarborough Community.
Senator Elena Smith, National President, B.N.T.U.
“Today is our first day of strike. This morning our teachers went to school, did their work as they would normally do, and then they walked off at 11:30. So this signifies the beginning of a start to however long it will take us to get what it is that we want.”
Our camera caught teachers walking out from the St Joseph Primary School compound at exactly 11:30 this morning. Even though the principal there was reluctant to speak, a release from the school noted that up to seventy-five percent of teachers from that school participated in today’s strike action.
“And how long will it take for you guys to get back to the classroom?”
Senator Elena Smith
“For as long as the government remains stubborn, we are going to be out here.”
G.O.B. says the unions are being unreasonable in requesting that they pass these legislations in a short period of time. And on Friday, inside the House, PM Briceño called on the unions to call of their strike action.
Senator Elena Smith
“The B.N.T.U. right now is calling on the Prime Minister to remove his pen off the table. We are also calling on the Prime Minster to remove that six months, that eight months that they are saying it will take to implement these good governance issues. If you want to call off, let’s call off. We want me to move back, then you move back as well and do what you got to do.”
“At least four teachers from the Edward P. Yorke High School informed their principal that they would be participating in today’s strike action. E. P. Yorke recently resumed face-to-face learning. At least one-third of the student population was here on campus today. Principal Canto informed News Five that she does not foresee any staffing issues unless strike action is sustained throughout the rest of the week.”
Karen Canto, Principal, Edward P. Yorke High School
“We are open. We are a government school. We run classes from eight o clock to one thirty and we currently have about one hundred and seventy on campus right now. And the parents have been calling and texting from yesterday asking. And the answer has been the same through, yes we will be having our classes. The reason I am not worried about the strike action affecting our students is because we are primarily online. And secondly, we teach by department, and the kids that are on this campus are the kids that we are giving extra support to.”
“If the strike action is to run into tomorrow, and a few days after, do you see a long term sustained strike action affecting your school’s operation?”
“Definitely that would concern me, but like I said, because we are online, we use primarily google classroom and teams. And I would exhort the parents to get into these classrooms with their kids.”
The minister responsible for public service, Henry Charles Usher has already informed cabinet of his intent to fix the salaries of public officers and teachers to reflect the ten percent salary cut. This morning on Open Your Eyes, Usher said government’s wage bill has become unsustainable.
Henry Charles Usher, Minister of Public Service, Constitutional & Political Reform
“The wage bill has ballooned out of control in the last twelve years or so. At a matter of fact in 2008 when the P.U.P. left office, the wage bill was around two hundred and seventy-five million. In 2020, adding in wages, the transfers to school, and pension we are looking at around six hundred and fifty million dollars. So we see that steep increase in wages. And really, as I said right now the economy has not been growing. So what you have are the wages making up more and more of all the revenue that government collects. Now we are at eighty-three percent, eighty-three cents out of every dollar government collect goes into paying these wages and so on. It is just not sustainable.”
People we interviewed in downtown Belize City today gave varying views on the teacher’s decision to exercise their right to strike.
Belize City Resident #1
“I voted blue. We had the government was in for eighteen years. You never hear them di march and do this and do that and nothing like that. But since blue is in power, working to get this in order, working to get things to go back in good order, big whole thing with deh now. Deh want to stop this and stop that, why didn’t they march? Next question.”
Belize City Resident #2
“I say the teachers deh have to fight fuh deh rights, jump high, jump low weh the government want duh they can’t do it, because the teacher work hard for whatever they want. Even when deh deh dah school, whatever deh want buy, dah outta deh own pocket. Government nuh give deh support fuh buy things fuh them.”
Belize City Resident #3
“If dah against the government – a hundred. I understand this Government just take office a few months, suh deh fresh. We should give them a lee run. But, if you di ask me fuh choose between the government and the teachers, I deh with the teachers any day ova the Government.”
Reporting for News Five, I am Paul Lopez.
Many of the protesters today wore blue and red ribbons and had their hands bound, or walked along with ribbons stretched across the street. Union members told us these symbolize their desire to cut the ties with both the red and blue parties and to no longer be bound to political affiliations, but to concentrate on national issues.
The BNTU were back at it again - this time protesting in front of the House of Culture where, just inside, the members of the Cabinet were meeting. Their protest was small but their message remains the same: good governance and no pay cuts. Courtney Menzies was out there today and has this story.
If you tried to send your child to school this morning, you would have noticed that his or her classroom was closed. That's because the BNTU strike continues - and during that strike, teachers do not work.
But they were still out educating the public today using information flyers that condensed their message into seven points.
Tanya Flowers Gillett, President, BNTU Belize Branch "What we're doing today is an education campaign, we started from Battlefield Park and we're distributing our information flyer, know the facts, after which we will do a small picketing around the House of Culture today."
"We're sending the same message from day 1, we're asking for good governance, corruption to come to an end, the implementation of UNCAC, nepotism to stop, transparency, financial accountability."
And while the picketing group was small, Gillett explained that teachers were engaged in their own forms of protest in different parts of the country.
And these teachers fighting for good governance and against the pay cuts now risk not receiving any salary at all by striking - a risk they are willing to take.
Tanya Flowers Gillett, President, BNTU Belize Branch "Well obviously you know if we're out of the classroom, you know the government will dock our salaries."
Reporter: "Is the consensus among your teachers that they are willing to take this salary dock?"
Tanya Flowers Gillett, President, BNTU Belize Branch "Well, we're out here, you saw what happened yesterday, we're standing up, and we have our purpose for why we're standing up. We're going as long as we have to go, we're going to stand as long as we have to stand. Thank you."
The BNTU have other activities planned for the rest of the week as their strike action continues.
TEACHERS LIVING HAND TO MOUTH
And while they were out there, one teachers decided to speak out against the salary cuts. Trecia Reneau says she already lives hand to mouth and if the 10% cut is implemented, she doesn't know what she will do. She explained that she had children to take of - her own and her students - along with a mortgage. And that's why she protests day after day because she simply cannot afford the cut - and especially not for three years.
Trecia Reneau, BNTU Member "To be honest, it will affect be big time, because first of all, I am a single mother, I have a daughter going to sixth form and she had to drop out of school just because I can't pay the fees, she sign up for six subjects and out of the six she only get two. Next thing you know, a thousand and add dollars for those two subject, you can't do no payment plan, I couldn't afford that, this semester she had to drop out. I have a big mortgage that I have to pay, and it's me one, I don't have anybody else by my side to help me, I have other family that have to depend on me, my mother likewise, so this, I am already from hand to mouth so I don't know what will happen to me after this."
"The next thing, for the 33 years of teaching, I have been taking money out of my pocket, constantly, helping students, especially from the school that I come from, the children that go to the school there are the poor of the poorest. So majority of those children, they don't have it, their parents don't have it, so we as teacher we have been taking out of our pocket. My children, I have more than one, and they always complain because I take away from my children to give to these children in my class and in my school. So it's very hard, one of the parents, I told her when I get cut, I don't know what will happen, she said well my child will suffer more because you are the one who help the children a lot at school."
C.E.O. Maheia told News Five the Ministry of Education will continue to monitor the situation since it is not known how long the teacher’s strike will last.
Dian Maheia, C.E.O., Ministry of Education
“I don’t think anyone knows how long this will last. We hope that this will not be something that will be prolonged. We need to keep monitoring. We need to know because everyone needs to know. It is our responsibility to make sure we do what we can for schools to remain open. It is the responsibility of the managing authorities to do their best to ensure that schools are open. We all need to know what is happening. Parents need to know. Here we were thinking we were getting back to school, now we are not. And even what’s the status of our learning packages. So it’s something that really has to be carefully watched so that we can know how we will proceed moving forward.”
“The reason why I asked that is because I know last year in March when COVID struck, essentially the school year just ended abruptly. With this, is that a possibility too? If this is to be prolonged, we might just have to cut the year short?”
“Unfortunately, it is something that we have to consider yes because what else…We need to have a sense of how widespread the strike actually is; how many teachers are actually involved from school to school, from level to level. Data is important. I’ve said it so many times. We need to know exactly what is happening. It can’t be a general vague notion – Oh yes, I think so, oh I heard this. We need to know exactly what’s happening because then we can make informed decisions. That would be an unfortunate decision. It would be a hard thing to do, but it would be something that we’d have to look at – all possibilities.”
Law Says Teachers Salaries May Be Cut!
The last time the teachers went on strike was back in October 2016; it lasted eleven days. Their salaries were cut and that matter was taken before the courts. As you heard from the B.N.T.U.’s Belize District Branch president, the teachers expect that deductions will be made. So today, we asked Education C.E.O., Dian Maheia if that is in fact the case. She says the law is clear and that decision is left up to the managing authorities of the schools.
Dian Maheia, C.E.O., Ministry of Education
“The rule actually states that it is the right of the teachers to go on strike; you have a right to strike. And the rule says also that you may not be paid. It doesn’t say that you definitely will not be paid; it says that you may not be paid. That is a decision that comes from the managing authority.”