Labor responds to issues

The Island Newspaper, Ambergris Caye, Belize            Vol. 10, No. 39            October 26, 2000

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Labor has been a controversial issue on the island in the aftermath of Hurricane Keith. Rumors of forced labor and the cries of people with no jobs are many. The San Pedro Sun spoke with Labor Officer Dale Trujeque this week to address some of these concerns.

    Mr. Trujeque explained that he was on the island the first week after the disaster. Working with NEMO and the San Pedro Town Council, he found the biggest problem was finding people who would work in the clean up efforts. Only menial labor was available for many people whose jobs were lost due to the storm. Only minimum wages were being paid for these jobs. Some people refused to do this kind of work thinking it was beneath them. Unbelievably, for this reason, people had to be recruited from the mainland to assist with the clean up operations.

    When asked about the rumors of forced labor, he further clarified that in a National State of Emergency, the Emergency Act is referenced as to how the laws and rights of workers change. Because of this Act, NEMO is within its rights to put people to work as long as they are paid at least minimum wages. He sympathized with the hard decisions NEMO was forced to make as a result. He agreed that if there were examples of forced labor on the island, it was mainly because there were individuals who refused to work in the recovery efforts and in turn hampered the efforts of others. Now that the state of emergency has been lifted, this Act does not apply.

    When questioned regarding the aid of the Belize Defense Force (BDF), he stated that they are to follow orders given them, and in the first week, most of them were assigned to relief efforts. This included loading and unloading supplies and assisting Human Development workers with distribution of food and materials. Others were ordered to supervise workers doing clean up. To dispel the rumor of forced labor at gunpoint, he explained that many of the BDF carry guns as their mission is to secure property and protect lives. This could be misinterpreted in someone's recollection of events to appear that the BDF were holding workers at gunpoint, but that is not true.

    Regarding child labor, Mr. Trujeque said this was his favorite story from San Pedro. He said the children were the most inspiring little people. Approximately a dozen showed up at the Town Hall immediately and asked if Town Council had anything for them to do. These children signed the job sheet, just like the adults, and were given appropriate tasks with no heavy lifting, such as sorting tools and small clean up jobs. The labor officer told us that, unlike some adults, the children would return to him as soon as they finished one task and ask for another. He commented on how they set an example for others and were paid wages for their labor as well.

    Addressing the issue of jobs on the island, Mr. Trujeque said that many employee's regular jobs are not available at this time. Employers have every right to ask a worker to do a job they did not previously perform, paying minimum wage if needed, until their regular job is available. Following the recovery period, and once the employee's job is reinstated, the usual wages must be paid. Employers are not obligated to pay an employee unless they work.

    For anyone requiring more information on these issues, the Labor Department can be contacted at 02-74023/27. November visits are scheduled for Ambergris Caye during the second week of the month, Wednesday to Friday at the Town Hall and will continue every other month. Mr. Trujeque concluded if anyone feels they have a labor issue, they should not hesitate to contact a labor officer.
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