Belize is a constitutional parliamentary democracy. In 2015 the United Democratic Party won 19 of 31 seats in the House of Representatives following generally free and fair multiparty elections.
Police are responsible for internal security. The Ministry of National Security is responsible for oversight of police, prisons, the coast guard, and the military. Although primarily charged with external security, the military also provides limited domestic security support to civilian authorities and has limited powers of arrest that are executed by the Belize Defense Force (BDF) for land and littoral areas and by the coast guard for coastal and maritime areas. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the security forces.
Significant human rights issues included allegations of unlawful killings by security officers; allegations of corruption by government officials; trafficking in persons; crimes involving violence targeting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex persons; and child labor.
In some cases the government took steps to prosecute public officials who committed abuses, both administratively and through the courts, but there were few successful prosecutions.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press
The law provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, and the government generally respected this right. An independent press, an effective judiciary, and a functioning democratic political system combined to promote freedom of expression, including for the press.
Press and Media, Including Online Media: In July a law firm representing Prime Minister Dean Barrow informed media outlets they could face legal action if they broadcast a statement from a foreign government agency related to Barrow. The statement, which was made public, was one of the court documents filed in a real-estate fraud case involving foreign investors. The prime minister and his law firm were named in the court document as having knowledge of the land scam. The opposition party criticized the prime minister’s letter, and Senator Osmany Salas described it as an attempt to restrain freedom of press.
b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association
The law provides for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association, and the government generally respected these rights.
c. Freedom of Religion
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
d. Freedom of Movement
The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights. The government detained several unaccompanied minors who were transiting the country en route to the United States to join their families.
f. Protection of Refugees
Access to Asylum: The law provides for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the government has established a system for providing protection to refugees. The government does not distinguish between refugees and asylum seekers, as the law itself does not reference asylum seekers–only refugees and recognized refugees. During the year the government did not grant asylum status to any of the pending 3,740 applicants, although the Refugee Eligibility Committee recommended 517 persons for approval. Many applications were summarily denied because the applicants did not apply for asylum within 14 days of entering the country, as the law requires. The nongovernmental organization (NGO) Help for Progress, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees implementing partner in the country, opened a resource facility near the western border to offer information on how to apply for asylum status, and it continued to assist by providing limited basic services, including shelter, clothing, and food to refugees and asylum seekers.
Employment: Persons awaiting adjudication of their refugee applications were unable to work legally in the country.
Access to Basic Services: Refugees were able to use the education system and the socialized medical system, but the government offered no assistance with housing or food except in extreme cases that involved children and pregnant women.
Temporary Protection: The Immigration Department issued renewable special residency permits for periods of 60 to 90 days to those who applied for refugee status within the 14-day deadline.
Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process
The law provides citizens the ability to choose their government in free and fair periodic elections held by secret ballot and based on universal and equal suffrage.
During the year the Elections and Boundaries Department conducted a reregistration of the entire electorate. A significant number of citizens claimed they were not allowed to register, and subsequently vote, because they lacked identification documents, which they said the government failed to provide.
Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government
The law provides criminal penalties for corruption by officials, but the government did not implement the law effectively, and officials often engaged in corrupt practices with impunity. There were numerous reports of government corruption during the year.
Corruption: Allegations of corruption in government among public officials, including ministers, deputy ministers, and chief executive officers, were numerous, although no substantial proof was presented in most cases. In September a foreign law enforcement agency detained the deputy director of the Belize Tax Service Department, Reynaldo Verde, for extortion and attempted extortion of a foreign national investor in Belize. The investor claimed that in 2017, Verde requested BZ$350,000 ($175,000) in exchange for erasing the taxes the investor owed to the government. Verde denied the accusations, and as of year’s end he continued detained abroad awaiting a court hearing.
The Senate Select Committee charged with investigating alleged corruption within the Immigration and Nationality Department failed to produce a report and recommendations to the government. Public hearings conducted during the 2017 investigation revealed several instances where high-ranking government officials, including ministers of government, approved the issuance of visas, citizenship, and passports to unqualified individuals. Citizens alleged corruption against the Lands and Surveys Department in the Ministry of Natural Resources for illegally distributing lands to party associates. Despite the accusations of political cronyism, the government insisted it maintained transparency in the distribution of land.
The 2017 case brought by the government against Andre Vega, the son of former deputy prime minister Gaspar Vega, concluded in July with a court ruling that Vega must repay BZ$400,000 ($200,000) in compensation he received for wrongfully being awarded a privately owned piece of land. Andre Vega and attorney Sharon Pitts were accused of unjustifiably enriching themselves from questionable land transactions while Gaspar Vega was minister. Pitts entered into mediation with the government in an effort to find an amicable solution to return money made in the scheme.
Financial Disclosure: The law requires public officials to submit annual financial disclosure statements, which the Integrity Commission reviews. At the same time, the constitution allows authorities to prohibit citizens from questioning the validity of such statements. Anyone who does so outside of the rigidly prescribed procedure is subject to a fine of up to BZ$5,000 ($2,500), three years’ imprisonment, or both. Many public officials did not submit annual financial disclosure statements and suffered no repercussions. In July the Integrity Commission published the names of 32 local government members who failed to file sworn declaration of assets for 2018. In accordance with the law, a report was also sent to the director of public prosecution for further action, but as of year’s end, none had been taken. As of September the commission continued to be staffed by only a secretary.
Section 5. Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Abuses of Human Rights
A variety of domestic and international human rights groups generally operated without government restriction, investigating and publishing their findings on human rights cases. Government officials often were cooperative and responsive to their views.
Government Human Rights Bodies: The ombudsman, although appointed by the government, acts as an independent check on governmental abuses. The Office of the Ombudsman holds a range of procedural and investigative powers, including the right to enter any premise to gather documentation and the right to summon persons. The office operated under significant staffing and financial constraints. The law requires the ombudsman to submit annual reports. The office does not have the power to investigate allegations against the judiciary. While the Office of the Ombudsman has wide investigative powers, it lacks effective enforcement authority; noncompliance by the offices being investigated severely limited its effectiveness.
The Human Rights Commission, an independent, volunteer-based NGO, continued to operate, but only on an ad hoc basis due to funding and staffing limitations. The commission provided human rights training for police recruits, prison officers, and the BDF.
Section 6. Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons
Section 7. Worker Rights
a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining
The law, including related regulations and statutes, generally provides for the right to establish and join independent trade unions, bargain collectively, and conduct legal strikes. The Ministry of Labor, Local Government, and Rural Development (Ministry of Labor) recognizes unions and employers associations after they are registered, and the law establishes procedures for the registration and status of trade unions and employer organizations and for collective bargaining. The law also prohibits antiunion discrimination, dissolution, or suspension of unions by administrative authority and requires reinstatement of workers fired for union activity.
The law allows authorities to refer disputes involving public- and private-sector employees who provide “essential services” to compulsory arbitration, prohibit strikes, and terminate actions. The postal service, monetary and financial services, civil aviation, petroleum sector, port authority personnel (stevedores and pilots), and security services are deemed essential services by local laws, beyond the International Labor Organization definition of essential services. There were no reports of antiunion discrimination, but there were some reports workers were intimidated into either not joining a union or dropping union membership if they had joined. In July, 125 employees of the Karl Heusner Memorial Hospital (KHMH), the country’s only referral hospital, walked out after learning the institution had no pension program for employees. The KHMH Workers’ Union stated the policy contradicted the law governing their employment and sought a legal opinion on the matter. On another matter, in September the union demanded that the hospital authority remove its director of medical services for arbitrarily withholding overtime payments to medical officers for two months. The union threatened to commence legal action if the director was not removed.
In August, Belize Water Service Limited (BWSL) signed a collective bargaining agreement for 295 employees that sought to promote efficient, safe, and effective working practices between the company and the union. BWSL, the only water and sewage utility for the country, is government owned.
Workers may file complaints with the Ministry of Labor or seek redress from the courts, although it remained difficult to prove that terminations were due to union activity. The ministry’s Labor Department generally handled labor cases without lengthy delays and dealt with appeals via arbitration outside of the court system. The court did not apply the law requiring reinstatement of workers fired for union activity and provided monetary compensation instead.
The Labor Department was hampered by factors such as a shortage of vehicles and fuel in its efforts to monitor compliance, particularly in rural areas. There were complaints of administrative or judicial delays relating to labor complaints and disputes. Penalties were insufficient to deter violations.
Antiunion discrimination and other forms of employer interference in union functions sometimes occurred, and on several occasions, unions threatened or carried out strikes. NGOs working in migrant communities asserted that in certain industries, particularly the banana, citrus, and construction sectors, employers often did not respect due process, did not pay minimum wages, and classified workers as contract and nonpermanent employees to avoid providing certain benefits. An NGO noted that both national and migrant workers were denied rights.
b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor
The constitution prohibits all forms of forced or compulsory labor. Penalties for forced or compulsory labor are covered under the antitrafficking law and include penalties sufficient to deter violations, although the government did not effectively enforce the law. Resources and inspections to deter violations were limited. The government reportedly investigated three forced labor cases; it did not identify any forced labor victims during the year.
Forced labor of both Belizean and foreign women occurred in bars, nightclubs, and domestic service. Migrant men, women, and children were at risk for forced labor in agriculture, fishing, and in the service sector, including restaurants and shops, particularly among the South Asian and Chinese communities.
The International Labor Organization expressed concern that the Trade Unions Act allows the sanction of compulsory labor to be imposed as a punishment for breaches of labor discipline or for peaceful participation in strikes.
Also see the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.
c. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment
The law does not prohibit all of the worst forms of child labor. The law sets the minimum age for employment at 14 years old generally, with the exception of work in wholesale or retail trade or business, for which the minimum age is 12. “Light work,” which is not defined in the law, is allowed for children ages 12 to 13. Children ages 14-18 may be employed only in an occupation that a labor officer determines is “not injurious to the moral or physical development of nonadults.” Children older than age 14 are explicitly permitted to work in “industrial undertakings,” which include mining, manufacturing, and construction. Children younger than age 16 are excluded from work in factories, and those younger than age 18 are excluded from working at night or in certain kinds of employment deemed dangerous. The Labor Department used a list of dangerous occupations for young workers as guidance, but the list was not adopted as law.
The law permits children to work on family farms and in family-run businesses. National legislation does not address a situation in which child labor is contracted between a parent and the employer. The National Child Labor Policy distinguishes between children engaged in work that is beneficial to their development and those engaged in the worst forms of child labor. The policy identifies children involved in the worst forms of child labor as those engaged in hazardous work, human trafficking and child slavery, commercial sexual activities, and illicit activities.
The Labor Department has primary responsibility for implementing labor policies and enforcing labor laws, but it was not effective in enforcing the law. Inspectors from the Labor and Education Departments are responsible for enforcing these regulations, with the bulk of the enforcement falling to truancy officers. Penalties were not sufficient to deter violations. There is also a National Child Labor Committee under the National Committee for Families and Children, a statutory interagency group that advocates for policies and legislation to protect children and eliminate child labor.
Some children were vulnerable to forced labor, particularly in the agricultural and service sectors. Commercial sexual exploitation of children occurred (see section 6, Children). According to the most recent data available from the Statistical Institute of Belize from 2013, the country’s child labor rate was 3.2 percent, with half of those children involved in hazardous work. The problem was most prevalent in rural areas. Boys accounted for 74 percent of children illegally employed, mostly engaged in hazardous activities.
d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation
The law and regulations prohibit discrimination with respect to employment on the basis of race, sex, gender, language, HIV-positive status or other communicable diseases, or social status. The government did not effectively enforce those laws and regulations. The law does not explicitly prohibit discrimination in employment with respect to disability, sexual orientation, or gender identity. There were reports discrimination in employment and occupation occurred with respect to sexual orientation. One NGO reported that members of the LGBTI community often had problems gaining and retaining employment due to discrimination in the workplace. There were no officially reported cases of discrimination at work based on ethnicity, culture, or skin color, although anecdotal evidence suggested such cases occurred.
e. Acceptable Conditions of Work
The national minimum wage was above the poverty-limit income level, according to statistics from 2009, the most recent year for which statistics were available. The law sets the workweek at no more than six days or 45 hours and requires premium payment for overtime work. Workers are entitled to two workweeks’ paid annual holiday. Additionally, there are 13 days designated as public and bank holidays. Employees who work on public and bank holidays are entitled to pay at time-and-a-half, except for Good Friday and Christmas, which are paid at twice the normal rate.
Several different health and safety regulations cover numerous industries. The regulations, which apply to all sectors, provide that the employer must take “reasonable care” for the safety of employees in the course of their employment. The regulations further provide that every employer who provides or arranges accommodation for workers to reside at or in the vicinity of a place of employment shall provide and maintain sufficient and hygienic housing accommodations, a sufficient supply of wholesome water, and sufficient and proper sanitary arrangements. In September, two men died after falling 40 feet from scaffolding while placing insulation in a public sporting facility. Four other men also fell but survived. The men, who were not provided harnesses, fell when the scaffold they were working on collapsed due to the condition of the wood.
The Ministry of Labor did not always effectively enforce minimum wage and health and safety regulations. The number of inspectors was not sufficient to secure compliance, especially in the more remote areas. Fines varied according to the infraction but generally were not very high and thus not sufficient to deter violations. In 2017 a labor tribunal was established, but it was unclear how many cases the tribunal had heard.
The minimum wage was generally respected. Nevertheless, anecdotal evidence from NGOs and employers suggested that undocumented Central American workers, particularly young service workers and agricultural laborers, were regularly paid below the minimum wage.
It was unclear whether workers could remove themselves from situations that endangered health or safety without jeopardy to their employment, or whether authorities effectively protected employees in this situation.