Belize has the smallest economy in Central America, with a gross domestic product (GDP) of US $1.2 billion in 2020, a 14.1 percent contraction over the previous year. Due to mounting fiscal pressures and a need to diversify and expand its economy, the Government is open to, and actively seeks, foreign direct investment (FDI). However, the small population of the country (2021 estimate – 412,000 persons), high cost of doing business, high public debt, bureaucratic delays, often insufficient infrastructure, and corruption constitute investment challenges.
The People’s United Party gained an overwhelming majority in the November 2020 General Elections, winning twenty-six of the thirty-one electoral divisions, overturning the prior United Democratic Party administration. With such a wide margin, Prime Minister John Briceño has the requisite majority to enact legislative and constitutional amendments to fulfill his party’s platform of government and fiscal transparency, anti-corruption, good governance, and economic development.
Generally, Belize has no restrictions on foreign ownership or control of companies, though foreign investors must adhere to Central Bank of Belize regulations, particularly the Exchange Control Act and related regulations. To be eligible for government-sponsored business incentives, small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) and tour operators must have 51 percent local ownership. The country also continues to rank poorly in of openness and ease of opening a business, with international surveys citing inefficiency and bureaucratic tangle as reasons.
Key legislative reforms in 2020 responded to COVID-19 budgetary, social relief and quarantine measures as well as advanced legislation relating to the international banking system, deposit insurance, mutual assistance in tax matters, electronic transactions, and cybercrime.
Overall, the economic and fiscal outlook remains troubled particularly with the global health and accompanying economic crisis. Government borrowing has accelerated as a result of COVID-19 mitigation and recovery efforts. The COVID-19 response required an increase in Government spending, while a steep fall in government revenues resulted in a “historic and dangerous increase in primary deficit, reaching 8.3 percent for 2020.” The country’s pre-COVID estimates for debt-to-GDP stood at 98 percent in 2019 and ballooned to 126 percent by the end of 2020.
The largest portion of Belize’s debt stock is comprised of external debt (67 percent) and of that, the Superbond is the single largest external debt burden. Given the dire fiscal situation, Belize successfully negotiated to capitalize Superbond interest payments between August 2020 and February 2021 which were added to the principal. In advance of the next May 2021 interest payment, the Government initiated a call to bondholders in March 2021 aimed at a fourth restructuring of the Superbond, now estimated at US $556 million (27 percent of overall government debt).
The financial system can be characterized as stable but fragile. High cost of finance and relatively high lending rates is an important constraint to economic growth. In 2020, subdued imports and inflows of multilateral credit contributed to raising foreign exchange reserves to US $346 million and improving import cover to 4.3 months. At the same time, businesses complained that foreign exchange shortages constrained both local and foreign owned operations as the Central Bank of Belize tightened measures for foreign exchange. Non-performing loans increased sharply from 2.2 percent to 5.8 percent of total loans between February to December 2020, largely as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Belize’s small, tourism- and export dependent-economy is especially vulnerable to exogenous shocks, such as the global health crisis, a weakened U.S. economy and depressed market environments. Its proximity to the economically developed nations of North America has translated to dependence on tourism as the primary economic sector. Though tourism has been a strong source of growth, it was the first sector to collapse with onset of COVID-19. Tourism earnings plummeted to US $242.2 million (54 percent) in 2020, as the country closed to international cruise and overnight tourists. Land borders and port facilities have remained closed since March 2020, while the country’s international airport closed between March and September 2020.
Agriculture, the second most important economic sector, is based on a small group of exports, including sugar, banana, and citrus juice. This sector is increasingly exposed to environmental disasters such as drought, hurricanes, and climate-related effects. Additionally, Belize’s agricultural exports are often impacted by preferential market access policies common in the region, such as the United States’ highly regulated sugar market, or the Caribbean Community’s (CARICOM) internal trade controls. In 2020, the sector experienced significant declines as export markets became more restricted due to COVID-19, as well as the aftermath of drought and flooding from two major regional hurricanes. Domestic export receipts fell to US $179.65 million (12.2 percent) in 2020, as revenues from all major commodities declined, except for molasses and banana.
Belize’s regionally high per capita GDP, political and currency stability, bilingual population and developing infrastructure do provide some investment opportunities. Sectors that have traditionally attracted investment include tourism, business processing outsourcing such as call centers, agriculture, telecommunications, and renewable energy. In a post-COVID-19 recovery, it is expected that opportunities will remain in export diversification of agriculture industries, forestry and renewable energy, and investments in the tourism sector.
1. Openness To, and Restrictions Upon, Foreign Investment
Policies Towards Foreign Direct Investment
Belize’s government encourages FDI to relieve fiscal pressure and diversify the economy. While the government is interested in attracting FDI, certain bureaucratic and regulatory requirements impede investment and growth.
There are no laws that explicitly discriminate against foreign investors. In practice, however, investors complain that lack of transparency, land insecurity, bureaucracy, delays, and corruption are factors that make it difficult to do business in Belize. In 2020, businesses increasingly complained that foreign exchange shortages constrained both local and foreign owned operations as the Central Bank of Belize tighten measures to obtain approval for foreign exchange. U.S. firms have also identified challenges in participating and competing in areas related to the bidding, procurement and dispute settlement processes, particular to SOEs.
The Belize Trade and Investment Development Service (BELTRAIDE; ) is the investment and export promotion agency. It promotes FDI through various incentive packages and identified priority sectors for investment such as agriculture, agro-processing, fisheries and aquaculture, logistics and light manufacturing, food processing and packaging, tourism and tourism-related industries, business process outsourcing (BPOs), and sustainable energy. Export-orientated businesses operating in less developed areas also receive preferential treatment.
The Economic Development Council, , is a public-private sector advisor body established to advance public sector reforms, to promote private sector development and to inform policies for growth and development. The Cabinet Sub–Committee on Investment is composed of ministers whose portfolios are directly involved in considering and approving investment proposals. Additionally, there is an Office of the Ombudsman who addresses issues of official wrongdoing.
Limits on Foreign Control and Right to Private Ownership and Establishment
Belize acknowledges the right for foreign and domestic private entities to establish and own business enterprises and engage in remunerative activities. Foreign and domestic entities must first register their business before engaging in business. They must also register for the appropriate taxes, including business tax and general sales tax, as well as obtain a social security number and trade license.
Generally, Belize has no restrictions on foreign ownership and control of companies; however, foreign investments must be registered with the Central Bank of Belize and adhere to the Exchange Control Act and related regulations. To register a business name with the government, foreigners must apply with a Belizean partner or someone with a permanent residence. Additionally, persons seeking to open a bank account must also comply with Central Bank regulations. These may differ based on the applicant’s residency status and whether the individual is seeking to establish a local or foreign currency account. Note: many Belizeans perceive foreigners to receive favorable treatment from the government over access to capital during the start-up process.
Foreign investments must be registered and obtain an “Approved Status” from the Central Bank to facilitate inflows and outflows of foreign currency. Investments with “Approved Status” are generally granted permission to repatriate funds gained from profits, dividends, loan payments and interest. Additionally, the Exchange Control Regulation Act was amended in 2020 to relax the requirement for non-residents to obtain prior permission from the Central Bank to conduct transaction in securities and real estate. The amendment now provides for prior written notice to the Central Bank with full particulars of the transaction.
Some investment incentives show preference to Belizean-owned companies. For example, to qualify for a tour operator license, a business must be majority-owned by Belizeans or permanent residents of Belize ( ). This qualification is negotiable particularly where a tour operation would expand into a new sector of the market and does not result in competition with local operators. The government does not impose any intellectual property transfer requirements.
The Cabinet Sub-Committee on Investment investigates investment projects which do not fall within Belize’s incentive regime or which may require special considerations. For example, an investment may require legislative changes, a customized memorandum of understanding or agreement from the government, or a public–private partnership. The government assesses proposals based on size, scope, and the incentives requested. In addition, proposals are assessed on a five-point system that analyses: 1) socio-economic acceptability of the project; 2) revenues to the government; 3) employment; 4) foreign exchange earnings; and 5) environmental considerations. There is no statutory timeframe for considering projects as the process largely depends on the nature and complexity of the project.
Foreign investors undertaking large capital investments are advised to adhere to environmental laws and regulations. Government requires project developers to prepare an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA), should a project meet certain parameters such as land area, location, or industry criteria. When purchasing land or planning to develop in or near an ecologically sensitive zone, government recommends that the EIA fully address any measures by the investor to mitigate environmental risks. Developers must obtain environmental clearance prior to the start of site development. The Department of Environment website, has more information on the Environmental Protection Act and other regulations, applications and guidelines.
Other Investment Policy Reviews
In the past three years, there has been no investment policy review of Belize by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) or the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD). Belize concluded its third Trade Policy Review in the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 2017.
BELTRAIDE ( ), a statutory body of the Government of Belize, operates as the country’s investment and export promotion agency. Its investment facilitation services are open to all investors – foreign and domestic. While there are support measures to advance greater inclusion of women and minorities in entrepreneurial initiatives and training, the business facilitation measures do not generally distinguish by gender or economic status.
In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the government launched its National Economic Recovery Strategy, as well as, various fiscal and economic stimulus packages. In April 2020, BELTRAIDE concluded an online National Rapid Private Sector Economic Impact Assessment Survey to determine some of the challenges MSMEs faced as a result of the pandemic. Government thereafter launched its MSME Support Program (MSP) in August 2020 to offer an estimated US $7 million in financial relief through small grants, loans and wage subsidies to enterprises affected by the pandemic.
The Belize Companies and Corporate Affairs Registry (tel: +501 822 0421; email: ; website: ) is responsible for the registration process of all local businesses and companies. On line services are available by downloading requisite forms off the Registry’s website, making payments to a local bank and emailing proof of payments. Belize does not operate a single-window registration process.
Businesses must register with the tax department to pay business and general sales tax. They must also register with their local city council or town board to obtain a trade license to operate a business. An employer should also register employees for social security. The 2020 Doing Business report ( ) estimates it takes on average 48 days to start a company in Belize. The same report ranks Belize at 135 of 190 economies, losing ten spots compared to 2019.
Belize does not promote or incentivize outward investments. Its government does not restrict domestic investors from investing abroad. However, the Central Bank places currency controls on investment abroad, with Central Bank approval required prior to foreign currency outflows.
3. Legal Regime
Transparency of the Regulatory System
There are no reports that Government policies, processes and laws significantly distort or discriminate against foreign investors. Nonetheless, some investors have complained of systematic shortfalls including that the regime for incentives did not always meet their needs, that land titles are not always reliable and secure, and that bureaucratic delays or corruption can hinder doing business in Belize. U.S. firms have also identified challenges in participating and competing in areas related to the bidding, procurement and dispute settlement processes, particular to SOEs.
There are no NGOs or private sector associations that manage regulatory processes. NGOs and private sector associations do lobby on behalf of their members but have no statutory authority.
Regulatory authority exists both at the local and national levels with national laws and regulations being most relevant to foreign businesses. The cabinet dictates government policies that are enacted by the legislature and implemented by the various government ministries. There are also quasi-governmental organizations mandated by law to manage specific regulatory processes on behalf of the Government of Belize, e.g. the Belize Tourism Board, BELTRAIDE, and the Belize Agricultural Health Authority. Regulations exist at the local level, primarily relating to property taxes and registering for trade licenses to operate businesses in the municipality.
Some supra-national organizations and regulatory structures exist. For example, some elements of international trade affecting U.S. businesses are affected by CARICOM treaties, as in the case of the export of sugar within CARICOM.
Accounting, legal, and regulatory systems are consistent with international norms. Publicly owned companies generally receive audits annually, and the reports are in accordance with International Financial Reporting Standards and International Standards on Auditing.
Draft bills or regulations are generally made available for public comment through a public consultation process. Once introduced in the House of Representatives, draft bills are sent to Standing Committees, which then meet and invite the public and interested persons to review, recommend changes, or object to draft laws prior to further debate. The mechanism for drafting bills, enacting regulations and legislation generally apply across the board and include investment laws and regulations. Public comments on draft legislation are not generally posted online nor made publicly available. In a few instances, laws are passed quickly without meaningful publication, public review or public debate.
Government does not generally disclose the basis on which it reviews regulations. Some government agencies make scientific studies publicly available for example studies related to environmental impact assessments.
Some government ministries also make available policies, laws, and regulations pertinent to their portfolio available on their respective ministry websites or Facebook pages. Printed copies of the Belize Government Gazette contain proposed as well as enacted laws and regulations and are publicly available for a subscription fee. Additionally, enacted laws are published free of cost on the website of the National Assembly or Parliament but there is a delay of a few weeks in updating the website.
Regulations and enforcement actions are appealable with regulatory decisions subject to judicial review. The Office of the Ombudsman also may investigate allegations of official wrongdoing but has no legal authority to bring judicial charges. Reports of wrongdoing are submitted to the affected Ministry. Additionally, the Annual Report of the Ombudsman is tabled before the National Assembly and is a publicly available document.
In March 2021, the Government amended the Central Bank Act authorizing the Central Bank to provide emergency programs and facilities to a wide array of institutions, including banks, financial institutions, statutory corporations and other similar bodies. These emergency programs and facilities will allow for wider array of financial support to businesses, including the “purchase of financial assets including debt, equity and securities, credit facilities or discounting of notes, drafts or bills of exchange.” Through this measure the Government hopes to make available US $25 million in liquidity to invest in the productive sector, particularly in tourism businesses. Additionally, this amendment increased the limit of direct advances that the Central Bank can make to Central Government from 8.5 percent to 12 percent of the previous year’s recurrent revenues.
Further legislative reforms introduced in February 2021 purport to increase transparency with regard to Government finances but are yet to be finalized in the National Assembly. The first was a motion to reconstitute the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) to include three representatives from the social partners. This change will allow for a combined majority to the opposition and social partners representatives. The Committee is chaired by a member of the Opposition. The amendment provides a significant shift to public transparency as the PAC was previously a defunct committee of the legislature where the Government majority ruled. The PAC holds an important function in examining, considering and reporting on Government’s budget and public expenditures as well as reports of the Auditor General. The second motion was an amendment to the Finance and Audit Reform Act that will establish a contingency fund to be used for urgent and unforeseen expenditures for which there are no other provisions. And the third motion will amend the Contractor General Act and establish a Public Contracts Commission to monitor the award and implementation of public contracts and to investigate fraud, corruption, mismanagement, waste or abuse in the award of public contracts.
Information on public finance, both the government’s budget and its debt obligations (including explicit and contingent liabilities) are widely accessible to the general public, with most documents available online. The budget documents do not include information on contingent or state owned enterprise debt unless Government guarantees or is paying these debts. Nonetheless, the audited annual reports of all major State Owned Enterprises (SOEs) were publicly available on their websites. The Auditor General’s report on government spending, however, is often years delayed.
International Regulatory Considerations
As a full member of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), Belize’s foreign, economic and trade policies vis-a-vis non-members are coordinated regionally. The country’s import tariffs are largely defined by CARICOM’s Common External Tariff.
Besides CARICOM, Belize is a member of the Central American Integration System (SICA) at a political level but is not a part of the Secretariat of Central American Economic Integration (SIECA) that supports economic integration with Central America. Belize is also a member of the WTO and adheres to the organization’s agreements and reporting system.
The Belize Bureau of Standards (BBS) is the national standards body responsible for preparing, promoting and implementing standards for goods, services, and processes. The BBS operates in accordance with the WTO Agreement on Technical Barriers to Trade and the CARICOM Regional Organization for Standards and Quality. The BBS is also a member of the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC), the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), and Codex Alimentarius.
Legal System and Judicial Independence
The Belize Constitution is the supreme law and is founded on the principle of separation of powers with independence of the judiciary from the executive and legislative branches of government. As a former British colony, Belize follows the English Common Law legal system, which is based on established case law and precedent.
Belize has a written Contract Act, supported by precedents from the national courts as well as from the wider English-speaking and Commonwealth case law. Contracts are enforced through the courts. There are specialized courts that deal with family related matters including divorce and child custody, but no specialized courts to deal with commercial disputes or cases.
The judicial system remains independent of the executive branch for the most part. Case law exists where the judiciary has ruled against the government, and its judgements are respected and authoritative. The highest appellate court exists outside of Belize at the Caribbean Court of Justice, providing a level of independence for the judiciary. Notwithstanding, the current judicial system has some systemic problems – frequent adjournments, delays, and a backlog of cases caused by only a small number of judges and justices. General information relating to Belize’s judicial and legal system, including links to Belize’s Constitution, Laws and judicial decisions are available at the Judiciary of Belize website .
Businesses and citizens may appeal regulations and enforcement actions. Regulatory decisions are also subject to judicial review. Judgments by the Belize Supreme Court and the Court of Appeal are available at .
As a Member of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), Belize is also a member of the Caribbean Court of Justice ( ) based in Trinidad and Tobago. This Court has two jurisdictions in relation to CARICOM Members States. In its appellate jurisdiction, the CCJ is the final court of appeal for both civil and criminal matters emanating from CARICOM Member States. In its original jurisdiction, this Court is responsible for interpreting and applying the Revised Treaty of Chaguaramas, the treaty establishing the Caribbean Community and CARICOM Single Market and Economy.
Laws and Regulations on Foreign Direct Investment
The country has an English Common Law legal system supplemented by local legislation and regulations. The legal system does not generally discriminate against foreign investment and there are no restrictions to foreign ownership. The Exchange Control Act and its subsidiary laws and regulations, however, provide the legal framework that applies to foreign ownership and control. Other laws stipulate that foreign investment can qualify for incentives; citizens have the right to private property; contracts are legally binding and enforceable, and regulations are subject to judicial review among other provisions favorable to foreign investment.
- International Banking Act
- Deposit Insurance Act
- Mutual Administrative Assistance in Tax Act
- Electronic Transactions Amendment Act
- Cybercrime Act
There is no “one-stop-shop” website for investment and the laws, rules, procedures, and reporting requirements related to investors differ depending on the nature of the investment. BELTRAIDE provides advisory services for foreign investors relating to procedures for doing business in Belize and incentives available to qualifying investors. Further information is available at the BELTRAIDE website:
Competition and Antitrust Laws
Belize does not have any laws governing competition, but there are attempts to limit outside competition in certain industries (such as food and agriculture) by levying high import duties and import licensing requirements.
Expropriation and Compensation
The Government has used the right of eminent domain in several cases to appropriate private property, including land belonging to foreign investors. There were no new expropriation cases in 2020. However, claimants in previous cases of expropriation assert that the Government failed to adhere to agreements entered into by a previous administration. Belizean law requires that the government assess and compensate according to fair market value. Expropriation cases can take several years to settle and there are a few cases where compensation is still pending. Belize nationalized two companies in public-private partnership: Belize Electricity Limited and Belize Telemedia Limited. These actions were challenged in the courts and resolved in 2015 and 2017, respectively.
ICSID Convention and New York Convention
Belize formally acceded to the Recognition and Enforcement of Foreign Arbitral Awards (New York Convention) on March 15, 2021. Even though the Convention was extended to Belize by an act of the United Kingdom when Belize was a colony, Belize did not sign on to the Convention after independence.
The Arbitration Act governs arbitration and expressly incorporates three international conventions into domestic law. These conventions include the 1923 Geneva Protocol on Arbitration Clauses; the Convention on the Execution of Foreign Arbitral Awards; and the New York Convention. A 2013 Caribbean Court of Justice judgment also upheld the Arbitration Act giving effect to the New York Convention in domestic law.
The United Kingdom on behalf of Belize signed the Convention on the Settlement of Investment Disputes between States and Nationals of Other States (ICSID convention) in 1965 and the country has not ratified it.
Investor-State Dispute Settlement
Belize is signatory to various investment agreements which make provisions for the settlement of investor-state disputes. Belize is also a member of the CARICOM Single Market and Economy, as well as a party to two Economic Partnership Agreements (EPA): 1) between CARIFORUM and the EU; and 2) CARIFORUM and the United Kingdom. These arrangements make provisions for the settlement of investor-state disputes.
Since Belize is not a party to any Bilateral Investment Treaty (BIT) or Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with the United States, investment disputes involving U.S. persons are taken either before the courts or before international arbitration panels.
Over the past decade, the Government of Belize has been involved in approximately five to eight investment disputes with one involving a U.S. company. Most cases were initially entered in arbitration panels, but were eventually appealed either before the U.S. District Court of Columbia or the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ). Most of the judgments went against the Government, which has settled the majority and continues to settle other cases.
Local courts are empowered to recognize and enforce foreign arbitral awards against the government, but these are generally challenged up to the CCJ. The Crown Proceedings (Amendment) Act and the Central Bank of Belize (International Immunities) Act were passed in 2017, affecting the enforcement of foreign arbitral awards against the government. Essentially, the Crown Proceedings Amendment Act provides that should a foreign judgment be entered against the government, but a court in Belize later declares the judgement “unlawful, void or otherwise invalid”, the foreign judgment would be legally set aside. The Act also provides for hefty penalties of fines and/or imprisonment on a person, individual or legal, seeking to enforce the foreign judgment after being set aside. The Central Bank (International Immunities) Act restates the immunity of the Central Bank of Belize assets “from legal proceedings in other states.” This Act similarly provides for penalties of fines and/or imprisonment on a person, individual or legal, which initiates any such proceedings.
There has not been a history of extrajudicial actions against foreign investors.
International Commercial Arbitration and Foreign Courts
Belize’s Arbitration Act allows the Supreme Court of Belize to support and supervise dispute settlement between private parties through arbitration. The Supreme Court also provides for a process of court-connected mediation as an alternative method to dispute settlement between private parties and as a means of reducing costs and duration of litigation.
Local courts are empowered to recognize and enforce foreign arbitral, but these are generally challenged up to the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ).
Cases involving State Owned Enterprises (SOEs) have gone before domestic courts with rulings both in favor and against the SOE. Foreign businesses generally consider these rulings fair and impartial.
The Bankruptcy Act of Belize provides for bankruptcy filings. The Act provides for the establishment of receivership, trustees, adjudication and seizures of the property of the bankrupt. The court may order the arrest of the debtor as well as the seizure of assets and documents in the event the debtor may flee or avoid payment to creditors. The Act also provides for imprisonment on conviction of certain specified offenses. The Director of Public Prosecutions may also institute proceedings for offenses related to the bankruptcy proceedings. The bankruptcy law generally outlines actions a creditor may take to recoup his losses. Bankruptcy protections are not as comprehensive as U.S. bankruptcy law.
Belize ranked 135 of 190 economies in the 2020 World Bank’s Doing Business Report. The poor ranking was attributed to low depth of credit information, the lack of a credit bureau and of a collateral registry as well as problems related to payment of debts in situations of bankruptcy. According to this report, a receivership proceeding takes at least two years until the creditor is repaid all or part of the money owed and has a cost of 22.5 percent of the debt. Additionally, the insolvency procedure does not have a good framework to commence operations, to manage debtor´s assets, and to involve creditors in the reorganization proceedings, among others.
4. Industrial Policies
The legal framework authorizing and providing for investment incentives include the Fiscal Incentives Act, the Designated Processing Areas Act, the Free Zones Act, the International Business Companies Act, the Retired Persons Incentives Act, the Diaspora Retiree Incentive Program, the Trusts Act, the Offshore Banking Act, and the Gaming Control Act. These acts offer a range of incentives including tax deferments, tax reductions, access to land and capital, and preferential access to some government concessions.
While government policies support public private partnerships, they do not generally issue guarantees or joint financing of foreign direct investment projects. In exceptional circumstances, guarantees have been issued for SOE investments to purse funding from development institutions
Foreign Trade Zones/Free Ports/Trade Facilitation
The Designated Processing Areas Act (DPA) was passed in 2018 to replace the former Export Processing Zone Act. The DPA remains a tool to attract local and foreign investments that follow value-added business models to boost production for export markets. Approved companies under this program receive a DPA status for a period of up to ten years and may quality for various tax exemptions. These may include exemptions from Custom and Excise duties as well as from taxes on imported goods, namely the General Sales Tax, the Environmental Tax, and the Revenue Replacement Duties. Similarly, property and land tax may be waived on the designated area. In addition, approved companies are given certain exemptions, including from the Trade Licensing Act requirements for operating in a municipality and the Supplies Control Act, in relation to the importation of raw materials for production that are not for sale in Belize. Companies may maintain a foreign currency account in a domestic or international bank located in Belize as well as sell, lease, or transfer goods and services between DPA companies. While subject to the Income and Business Tax, businesses may qualify for a preferential tax rate on chargeable income. They may also be eligible for an annual quota for fuel solely for specified uses.
A Free Zone Act passed in 2019 amends the Commercial Free Zone (CFZ) Act. Belize currently has two CFZs, one on the northern border with Mexico and a small zone on the western border with Guatemala. The legislation now limits the activities allowed in CFZs to the following: services, trade and investment activities such as a commercial office, warehouse, manufacturing, tourism, temporary hotel accommodation within defined areas for guests and employees, and related international services or other professional or related activities. Banks and financial institutions licensed under the laws of Belize are allowed to operate within a CFZ, but their transactions are limited to only CFZ business.
Companies may operate both in the national customs territory and in the free zone, but must maintain separate accounts in respect of business activities. Additionally, goods entering the customs territory are subject to customs duties. The Commercial Free Zone Management Agency (CFZMA) monitors and administers the free zones. Incentives include exemptions from import duties, income tax, taxes on dividends, capital gains tax, or any new corporate tax levied by the Government during the first 10 years of operation. In addition, imports and exports of a CFZ are exempt from customs duties, consumption taxes, excise taxes, or in-transit taxes, except those destined for or directly entering areas subject to the national customs territory.
Performance and Data Localization Requirements
The Government of Belize does not mandate local employment. Under the International Business Companies and the Economic Substance Acts, companies are required to maintain an office, have economic presence, and maintain qualified personnel in Belize. Visa, residency, work permit, or similar requirements do not inhibit the mobility of foreign investors and their employees. All visitors must have a valid passport to enter the country, but Americans do not require visas for up to 30 days. Any visit exceeding 30 days will require a visa and an extension to remain in Belize obtained from the Immigration Department. Residency and work permit applications are managed by the Departments of Immigration and Labour, respectively and are frequently subject to systematic delays.
Domestic and foreign investors seeking to access incentives offered under the various incentives programs must comply with the conditions and objectives set out in the respective regimes, including performance requirements. Investments that have been approved for incentives generally report to the authorizing agency, namely BELTRAIDE or the Investment Ministry, to ensure they meet stipulations on the concession.
The Fiscal Incentives Act awards a qualified entity a development concession during the start-up or expansion stages to foster growth by offsetting custom duties. According to BELTRAIDE (www.belizeinvest.org.bz) two programs are offered under this Act, the Regular Program for investments exceeding US $150,000 and the Small and Medium Enterprise (SME) program for investments of less than US $150,000. The length and extent of a development concession are determined by several factors, including: (a) the extent of local value added; (b) the projected profitability of the enterprise; (c) foreign exchange earnings or savings; (d) transfer of skills and technology; and (e) new employment opportunities.
In general, investment incentives are applicable to both domestic and foreign investors. The Fiscal Incentives SME Program however, is aimed at smaller enterprises with a minimum of 51 percent Belizean ownership. The SME Program offers the same benefits of the Regular Program, with the exception of the allowable timeframe for duty exemptions. Under this program, companies are allowed a maximum of five years of development concessions, with the expectation that after this period, companies can mature into the Regular Program.
The Qualified Retirement Program (QRP) was created to facilitate eligible persons who have met the income requirements to permanently live and retire in Belize. The Belize Tourism Board overseas this program designed to benefit retired persons over 45 years of age. To qualify, applicants need proof of income not less than US $2,000 per month through a pension or annuity generated outside of Belize. An approved QRP is allowed to import personal effects as well as approved means of transportation, free of customs duties and taxes. All income generated outside of Belize is also free of taxes. The Act was amended in 2019 denying an individual benefiting under the program to engage in employment, own a business or invest in Belize.
The Government of Belize passed the Electronic Transaction Amendment and the Cybercrime Acts in 2020 that relate to the IT Sector. For further information see the section related to “Intellectual Property Rights.”
5. Protection of Property Rights
The Preamble of the Belize Constitution preserves the right of the individual to own private property and the right to operate private businesses. Common law, Belizean legislation, and case law all reinforce property rights and interests. Private entities, whether foreign or local, have the right to freely establish, acquire, and dispose of interests in property and business enterprises. Generally, the country has no restrictions on foreign ownership and control; however, foreign investments in Belize must be registered at the Central Bank of Belize and adhere to the Exchange Control Act and related regulations.
Mortgages and liens exist and related real estate is recorded with the registry of the Lands and Survey Department. The Lands and Survey Department has a history of corruption, and there have been charges of land fraud, abuses, and cronyism leveled against the Department during each administration. Investors are strongly advised to do their due diligence prior to purchasing property.
Foreign and/or non-resident investors are not allowed to acquire national lease property but may acquire titled privately owned property. The Central Bank regulates real estate transactions involving non-residents for exchange control purposes. Accordingly, real estate transactions between residents and non-residents must be in Belize dollars. Additionally, the rate of stamp duty chargeable on land transfers involving foreign persons or a foreign controlled company is eight percent for land transfers valued in excess of US $10,000, as opposed to five percent on transfers involving Belizeans and CARICOM nationals.
There are three different types of titles to freehold property in Belize: Deed of Conveyance, Transfer of Certificate of Title, and Land Certificate. Leasehold property from the government is available to Belizeans who can then apply for conversion to a fee simple title.
Squatters’ rights do exist, but are only enforceable by order of the Supreme Court after the resident has proven uninterrupted possession for at least 30 years on National and Conveyed lands or at least 12 years on registered lands.
Intellectual Property Rights
Belize is a member of the WTO and has implemented the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property (TRIPS). Generally, Intellectual Property (IP) rights must be registered and enforced in Belize. IP protections are enforceable through civil proceedings initiated by the IP holder. The Belize Intellectual Property Office (BELIPO) (http://belipo.bz) was established to administer IP laws and functions as the country’s national intellectual property registry. Its mandate covers the protection of copyrights, industrial designs, patents, trademarks, new plant varieties, and topographies of integrated circuits.
In practice, however, there is no active enforcement of IP protections, though there is active pursuit and prosecution of contraband. Bootleg CDs and DVDs are widespread and are marketed throughout the country, being especially prevalent in areas around the Free Zones.
During the past year, Belize enacted the Electronic Transactions Amendment Act, 2020 and the Cybercrime Act, 2020 that are IP-related. The Electronic Transactions Amendment Act is cited to promote the development of the legal and business infrastructure necessary to implement secure electronic commerce, to facilitate electronic filing with public bodies and to promote electronic service delivery and electronic records by public bodies. The Cybercrime Act is a comprehensive piece of legislation aimed to combat cybercrime by creating offences, providing for penalties, investigation, and prosecution of cybercrime and related offenses. Offenses extend from the illegal use, access, and interference of another’s computer, data and computer system, to forgery, identity fraud and theft, to the use of a computer with the intent or for engaging a child in sexually related activities, using sexually related data without consent, and using a computer system to damage another’s property, for threat or violence against another or their family.
There has been no report on seizures of counterfeit goods and no prosecution of IPR violations in the last year. While the Customs Department of Belize does track seizures of counterfeit goods, it does not properly document IP and contraband seizures. Belize is not listed in the U.S. Trade Representative’s 2021 Special 301 Report nor the 2020 Review of Notorious Markets for Counterfeiting and Piracy.
6. Financial Sector
Capital Markets and Portfolio Investment
Belize’s financial system is small with little to no foreign portfolio investment transactions. It does not have a stock exchange and capital market operations are rudimentary. The government securities market is underdeveloped and the market for corporate bonds is almost non-existent.
Temporary restrictions are currently in place for certain current international transactions that relate to the IMF’s Article VIII obligation not to restrict payments and transfers for current international transactions.
Additionally, credit is made available on market terms with interest rates largely set by local market conditions prevailing within the commercial banks. The credit instruments accessible to the private sector include loans, overdrafts, lines of credit, credit cards, and bank guarantees. Foreign investors can access credit on the local market. Under the International Banking Act, foreign investors/nonresidents may access credit from international banks registered and licensed in Belize. However, permission to access credit from the domestic banks requires Central Bank approval.
The Belize Development Finance Corporation (DFC), a state-owned development bank, offers loan financing services in various sectors. To qualify for a loan from DFC, an individual must be a Belizean resident or citizen, while a company must be majority 51 percent Belizean owned. The National Bank of Belize is a state-owned bank that provides concessionary credit primarily to public officers, teachers, and low income Belizeans.
Money and Banking System
A financial inclusion survey undertaken by the Central Bank of Belize in 2019 showed that approximately 65.5 percent of adult Belizeans had access to a financial account. Belize’s financial system remains underdeveloped with a banking sector that may be characterized as stable but fragile. The Central Bank of Belize (CBB) ( ) is responsible for formulating and implementing monetary policy focusing on the stability of the exchange rate and economic growth.
The Central Bank of Belize in November 2020 approved the sale of Scotia Bank Belize Limited by the Caribbean International Holdings Limited, the parent company Belize Bank Limited. The approval effectively makes the controversial Lord Ashcroft’s Belize Bank Limited the largest bank in the country. Concerns were initially raised on the possible effects on Belize’ correspondent banking situation and the potential withdraw of foreign exchange from the banking system.
To respond to the economic fallout caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the Central Bank in April 2020 reduced the statutory liquid asset and cash reserve requirement by two percent points in an effort to expand liquidity and facilitate credit flow in the economy. In March 2021, the Government amended the Central Bank Act authorizing the Central Bank to provide emergency programs and facilities to a wide array of institutions including banks, financial institutions, statutory corporations and other similar bodies. These emergency programs and facilities will allow for wider array of financial support to businesses including the “purchase of financial assets including debt, equity and securities, credit facilities or discounting of notes, drafts or bills of exchange.” Through this measure the Government hopes to make available US $25 million in liquidity to invest in the productive sector, particularly in tourism businesses.
Additionally, this amendment increased the limit of direct advances that the Central Bank can make to Central Government from 8.5 percent to 12 percent of the previous year’s recurrent revenues.
Other measures which the Central Bank has put in place in the last year, to position the banking sector withstand shocks include several guidance to ease banking customers’ debt service payments like moratoria on interest and principal payments, consolidating and restructuring credit facilities, waiving loan, credit, and penalty fees. The Central Bank also issued guidance whereby forbearance measures to extend to December 2021.
Generally, there are no restrictions on foreigners opening bank accounts in Belize. However, persons seeking to open a bank account must comply with Central Bank regulations. Regulations differ based on residency status and whether the individual is seeking to establish a local bank account or a foreign currency account. Foreign banks and branches are allowed to operate in the country with all banks subject to Central Bank measures and regulations. Since 2015, all banks have regained correspondent banking relations. These relationships are still tenuous, with delays in transactions, and fewer services offered at higher costs.
In the last few years, Belize has enacted a number of reforms to strengthen the anti-money laundering and counterterrorism-financing regime, including amendments to the Money Laundering and Terrorism (Prevention) Amendment Act and the International Business Companies (Amendment) Act. In addition, the National Anti-Money Laundering Committee (NAMLC) is headed by the Financial Intelligence Unit with inter-agency support from key financial and law enforcement authorities.
Foreign Exchange and Remittances
Belize has a stable currency, with the Belize dollar pegged to the United States Dollar since May 1976 at a fixed exchange rate of BZ $2.00 to the US $1.00.
The Government of Belize has established currency controls, and foreign investors seeking to convert, transfer, or repatriate funds must comply with Central Bank regulations. Foreign investments must be registered at the Central Bank to facilitate inflows and outflows of foreign currency. Foreign investors must register their inflow of funds to obtain an “Approved Status” for their investment and generally are approved for repatriation of funds thereafter. Additionally, he Exchange Control Regulation Act was amended in 2020 to relax the requirement for non-residents to obtain prior permission from the Central Bank to conduct transaction in securities and real estate. The amendment now provides for prior written notice to the Central Bank with full particulars of the transaction.
Businesses complained that foreign exchange shortages in 2020 constrained both local and foreign operations as the Central Bank of Belize tighten measures to obtain approval for foreign exchange. As such domestic banks prioritized foreign exchange sales to ensure that payments for essential goods and services are covered.
As mentioned above, foreign investors must obtain an “Approved Status” for their investment and register their inflow and outflow of funds with the Central Bank. Additionally, the Exchange Control Regulation Act was amended in 2020 to relax the requirement for non-residents to obtain prior permission from the Central Bank to conduct transaction in securities and real estate. The amendment now provides for prior written notice to the Central Bank with full particulars of the transaction.
Generally, there are no time limitations on remittances. Where there is a waiting period, it depends on the availability of foreign exchange, but does not generally exceed 60 days. The Central Bank however, placed a temporary suspension on all payments of cash dividends and repatriation of profits effective December 29, 2020 to June 30, 2021.
Sovereign Wealth Funds
Belize does not have a sovereign wealth fund.
7. State-Owned Enterprises
State Owned Enterprises (SOEs) exist largely in the utilities sectors, usually as a result of the government nationalization. The Government is the majority shareholder in the Belize Water Services Limited, the country’s sole provider of water services, the Belize Electricity Limited, the sole distributor of electricity, and the Belize Telemedia Limited, the largest telecommunications provider in the country. The Public Utilities Commission regulates all utilities.
To staff these companies’ boards of directors, SOEs usually select senior government officials, members of local business bureaus and chambers of commerce, labor organizations, and quasi-governmental agencies. The board serves to direct policy and shape business decisions of the SOE that is ostensibly independent. Current and previous administrations have been accused of nepotism and cronyism, and have been criticized for having conflicts of interest when board members or directors are also represented in organizations that do business with the SOEs.
There is no published list of SOEs. The following are the major SOEs operating in the country. Information relating to their operations is available on their websites:
- Belize Electricity Limited at ;
- Belize Telemedia Limited at ;
- Belize Water Services Limited at
There are no third-party market analysis sources that evaluate whether SOEs receive non-market advantages by the government. The Belize Electricity Limited and the Belize Water Services Limited are the only service providers in their respective sectors. The Belize Telemedia Services, on the other hand, competes with one other provider for mobile connectivity and there are multiple players that provide internet and data services. U.S. firms have identified challenges in participating and competing in areas related to the bidding, procurement and dispute settlement processes, particular to SOEs.
The Government does not currently have a privatization program.
8. Responsible Business Conduct
Belize generally lacks broad awareness of the expectations and standards for responsible business conduct (RBC). However, many foreign and local companies engage in responsible corporate behaviors, and partner with NGOs or international organizations to reinvest in community development and charitable work. Companies sponsor, inter alia, educational scholarships, sports related activities, community enhancement projects, or entrepreneurship activities. There is a strong thread of environmental awareness that also impacts business decision-making. BELTRAIDE, in its official public outreach, also promotes civic responsibility, especially in its outreach to entrepreneurs and young aspiring businesspeople.
Several civil society agencies seek to protect individuals and address human rights, labor rights, consumer protection, and environmental concerns but they do not directly engage in promoting or monitoring RBC. There are no formal government measures or policies to promote RBC.
The Office of the Ombudsman is responsible for investigating complaints of official corruption and abuse of power. As required by law, the Ombudsman is active in filing annual reports to the National Assembly and investigating incidents of alleged misconduct, particularly of police abuses. This Office continues to be constrained by the lack of enforcement powers, political pressure, and limited resources.
In the area of environment, certain projects require the Department of the Environment’s approval for Environmental Impact Assessments or Environmental Compliance Plans. The Department of Environment website, , has more information on the Environmental Protection Act, various regulations, applications and guidelines.
Belize has not adopted a particular accounting framework as its national standards. The International Financial Reporting Standards (IFRS) are required for domestic banks under the Domestic Bank and Financial Institutions Act (DBFIA) of Belize. Also under the DBFIA, the Central Bank of Belize has a practice direction on corporate governance applicable to all banks and financial institutions operating and supervised by the Central Bank.
For other companies, Belize permits companies to use IFRS Standards and the IFRS for SMEs as the financial reporting framework for preparing their financial statements. The Institute of Chartered Accountants of Belize regards IFRS Standards as an allowed accounting framework under its professional standards. Alternatively, non-bank companies are permitted to use other internationally recognized standards. As such, the US Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP) and Canadian GAAP are often used. There are no government measures relating executive compensation standards and RBC policies are not factored into procurement decisions. Opposition party political pronouncements often target official malfeasance in procurement and cronyism in government contracts, but these concerns are historically muted once the opposition takes power. Belize has no recent cases of private sector impact on human rights and no NGOs, investment funds, worker organizations/unions, or business associations specifically promote or monitor RBC. There are similarly no alleged or reported human or labor rights concerns relating to RBC. In recent years, labor unions and business associations have become actively engaged in advocating for stronger measures against corruption.
Belize has no recent cases of private sector impact on human rights and no NGOs, investment funds, worker organizations/unions, or business associations specifically promote or monitor RBC. There are similarly no alleged or reported human or labor rights concerns relating to RBC. In recent years, labor unions and business associations have become actively engaged in advocating for stronger measures against corruption. Belize does not have a highly developed mineral sector and is not a conflict or high-risk country. As such, it does not adhere to the OECD Due Diligence Guidance for Responsible Supply Chains of Minerals from Conflict-Afflicted and High-Risk Areas. Belize’s extractive/mining industry is not highly developed, and it does not participate in the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI) and/or the Voluntary Principles on Security and Human Rights.
Belize does not have a highly developed mineral sector and is not a conflict or high-risk country. As such, it does not adhere to the OECD Due Diligence Guidance for Responsible Supply Chains of Minerals from Conflict-Afflicted and High-Risk Areas. Belize’s extractive/mining industry is not highly developed, and it does not participate in the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI) and/or the Voluntary Principles on Security and Human Rights.
The private security industry is nascent and comprised of a handful of local private security companies. As such, the country is not a signatory of The Montreux Document on Private Military and Security Companies, nor is it a supporter of the International Code of Conduct or Private Security Service Providers, and is not a participant in the International Code of Conduct for Private Security Service Providers’ Association.
Department of State
- Country Reports on Human Rights Practices;
- Trafficking in Persons Report;
- Guidance on Implementing the “UN Guiding Principles” for Transactions Linked to Foreign Government End-Users for Products or Services with Surveillance Capabilities and;
- North Korea Sanctions & Enforcement Actions Advisory
Department of Labor
Belize has anti-corruption laws that are seldom enforced. Under the Prevention of Corruption in Public Life Act, public officials are required to make annual financial disclosures, but there is little adherence and poor enforcement. The Act criminalizes acts of corruption by public officials and includes measures on the use of office for private gain; code of conduct breaches; the misuse of public funds; and bribery. Section 24 of the Act covers punishment for breach, which may include a fine of up to US $5,000, severe reprimand, forfeiture of property acquired by corruption, and removal from office. This Act also established an Integrity Commission mandated to monitor, prevent, and combat corruption by examining declarations of physical assets and financial positions filed by public officers. The Commission is able to investigate allegations of corrupt activities by public officials, including members of the National Assembly, Mayors and Councilors of all cities, and Town Boards. In practice, the office is understaffed, and charges are almost never brought against officials. It is not uncommon for politicians disgraced in corruption scandals to return to government after a short period of time has elapsed.
The Money Laundering and Terrorism (Prevention) Act identifies “politically exposed persons” to include family members or close associates of any politician.
The Ministry of Finance issues the Belize Stores Orders and Financial Orders – policies and procedures for government procurement. The Manual for the Control of Public Finances provides the framework for the registration and use of public funds to procure goods and services.
Despite these legislative and regulatory measures, many businesspeople complain that both major political parties practice partisanship bias that affects businesses in terms of receiving licenses, the importation of goods, winning government contracts for procurement of goods and services, and transfer of government land to private owners. Some middle-class citizens and business owners throughout the country have complained of government officials, including police, soliciting bribes. A Select Senate Committee on Immigration deliberated for most of 2017 on such allegations by known members of the United Democratic Party. It concluded its inquiry in December 2017 and published its findings and recommendations.
Private companies are not required to establish internal codes of conduct. There are few non-governmental institutions that monitor government activities; two of which are: the Citizens Organized for Liberty through Action (COLA) and the National Trade Union Congress of Belize (NTUCB). The first is comprised of concerned private citizens; the latter is an umbrella organization comprised of the various Belizean workers’ unions. Environmental NGOs and the Belize Chamber of Commerce and Industry often make statements regarding government policy as it affects their respective spheres of activity. The Government does not provide protection to NGOs investigating corruption.
Private companies are not required to establish internal codes of conduct. There are few non-governmental institutions that monitor government activities; two of which are: the Citizens Organized for Liberty through Action (COLA) and the National Trade Union Congress of Belize (NTUCB). The first is comprised of concerned private citizens; the latter is an umbrella organization comprised of the various Belizean workers’ unions. Environmental NGOs and the Belize Chamber of Commerce and Industry often make statements regarding government policy as it affects their respective spheres of activity. The Government does not provide protection to NGOs investigating corruption.
Private companies do not use internal controls, ethics or compliance programs to detect and prevent bribery of government officials. Bribery is officially considered a criminal act in Belize, but laws against bribery are rarely enforced. Complaints related to government corruption relating to customs, land, and immigration are quite common. U.S. firms have anecdotally identified corruption as an obstacle to FDI, including in areas related to the bidding process and the award of licenses, concessions, and contracts by government bodies and state owned enterprises, and dispute settlement.
In June 2001, the Government of Belize signed the Organization of American States (OAS) Inter-American Convention on Corruption, which undergoes periodic review as provided for under the Convention. In December 2016, Belize acceded to the United Nations Convention Against Corruption (UNCAC) amid public pressure and demonstrations from the teachers’ unions. Government continues to be criticized for the lack of political will to fully implement UNCAC.
Resources to Report Corruption
For specific complaints within the police force:
Professional Standards Branch
1902 Constitutions Drive
T: +501-822-2218 or 822-2674
10. Political and Security Environment
Belize has traditionally enjoyed one of the most stable political environments in the region, having held peaceful and transparent democratic elections since independence on September 21, 1981. In general elections, the two major political parties usually trade leadership. The current People’s United Party gained an overwhelming majority in the November 2020 General Elections, winning twenty-six of the thirty-one electoral divisions. At the municipal level, elections were held in March 2021 and the People’s United Party again won all nine municipalities. The two parties are not strongly divergent in policy, being viewed largely as center-left and center-right, with party affiliation largely following family and place of origin.
Incidents including damage to projects or installations affecting investments in Belize are rare.
In November 2014, the Belize Sugar Cane Farmers Association (BSCFA) and American Sugar Refineries (ASR) failed to reach a contract agreement before the harvesting season. While the dispute was eventually resolved, there were some reports of fields being burned and farmers being threatened for breaking ranks with BSCFA.
Neighboring Guatemala’s long-standing territorial claim on Belize has persisted for almost two centuries and has caused international political insecurity. After the proposed OAS simultaneous referenda failed to materialize in 2013, Guatemala and Belize held separate referenda in April 2018 and in May 2019, respectively, each agreeing to refer the dispute to the ICJ. In its Memorial of December 2020, Guatemala filed its case before the ICJ claiming Belize’s continental land, islands, and seas. Belize will file its Counter Memorial in June 2022. Parallel to the ICJ process, both Governments continue efforts to reestablish amicable relations which have been strained in recent years due to incursions and natural resources extraction by Guatemalan citizens along bordering areas. Confrontations between Guatemalan nationals and Belize law enforcement authorities on Belizean territory and Belizean nationals and Guatemalan law enforcement authorities in the southern Sarstoon waters have contributed to strained relations.
The second major security concern is the high level of crime countrywide. Some incidents are gang related while others are random target against innocent civilians and tourists. While Belize has an unusually high murder rate per capita, violent crime has not historically targeted American citizens or businesses.
Turf and local gang-related crimes are often concentrated in south side Belize City. Nonetheless, Belize is seeing a nationwide emergence of MS-13, likely a result of gang members fleeing El Salvador. Although a small presence at this time, these gang members easily integrate into established El Salvadorian communities in Belize resulting in sporadic violence. Gang-related criminal activities increase the burden on an already stressed and under-resourced police force.
11. Labor Policies and Practices
According to the Statistical Institute of Belize (SIB), the population was estimated to be 419,199 as of July 2020. The labor force was 168,630 as of September 2020. Of this, the unemployed amounted to 19,489 persons for an unemployment rate of 13.7 percent, representing a 3.3 percent increase over September 2020. It is important to note that, under the September 2020 labor survey, refined definitions were implemented for classifying the employed, unemployed, and underemployed, in accordance with a resolution of the 19th International Conference of Labour Statisticians (ICLS). The unemployed population would have been at 29.6 percent using the previous definition compared to 13.7 percent using the updated definitions.
The major difference is related to the criterion of persons “looking for work.” These persons were previously captured as unemployed, but were now classified as falling outside of the labor force. Hence, the updated revisions did not capture many of the 38,909 persons without work who lost their previous jobs or businesses due to COVID-19. Those not captured as unemployed included women who had recently lost jobs but were not looking for work as they assumed the roles of caretakers of elderly persons or children at home. Others, both men and women, were similarly not captured as unemployed as they waited to be called back to their former jobs. Still others were classified as employed even though they received reduced or partial wages. Among the different age groups, youths (14 to 24 years) were more likely to be unemployed, with a rate of 23 percent, compared to 11 percent among adults.
COVID-19 caused the tourism industry to collapse and saw a dramatic spike in the unemployment rate in Belize. In response, the Government instituted an unemployment relief program in March 2020, but had to close the application process after a barrage of 60,000 applications in the first week. Nonetheless the labor survey reports that about 77 percent of those who lost their jobs between March and August 2020, were in fact not sustained by the Government but rather by a parent, spouse or child or depended on their own savings. It is also noteworthy that those employed in tourism fell to 8.1 percent in September 2020 after being the second largest job provider at 17.2 percent in September 2019.
The Ministry of Labour is charged with enforcing the minimum wage. The national minimum wage was raised to BZ $3.30 (US $1.65) per hour in May 2012. Belize is both a destination and an origin country for migrant workers. It lacks a structured temporary employment program for migrant workers, but has an established procedure for issuing work permits. The majority of approved work permits are for Central Americans seeking seasonal employment in the agricultural sector, particularly in the banana, citrus, and sugar industries. Migrant workers originating in Belize seek employment mostly in the United States, Canada, and throughout the Caribbean. Additionally, Belizean professionals (as well as nationals from CARICOM member states) qualify for the Caribbean Certificate of Recognition of CARICOM Skills Qualification, which allows them to work in the Caribbean under the Caribbean Single Market and Economy’s free movement of skilled labor initiative.
The labor force is largely unskilled, with 62.5 percent of employed persons engaged in elementary occupations, services and sales or agriculture and related work. The education system is poorly equipped in preparing labor force entrants to become entrepreneurs and adapt to a technology-driven global environment. Compulsory education ends at age 14 and low-income families often withdraw children from school at that age to join the workforce and help sustain the family.
Several agencies seek to provide soft skills needed to enter the labor market. BELTRAIDE hosts on-going trainings for small and micro enterprises on a wide range of basic skills related to customer service, business development, and management. Additionally, targeted training is available to meet employer demand in business process outsourcing and tourism related sectors. Belize lacks sufficient skilled labor in engineering and sciences, specifically for the development of the technology and hospitality sectors.
Most of the unskilled or semi-skilled workers in commercial agriculture are recent immigrants or migrant workers from neighboring Central American countries. Employers in the agriculture sector tend to use temporary workers even for jobs that are not temporary in nature. Workers permits and other immigration-related documents are processed by a labor committee, which has inter-ministerial representation from ministries with responsibility for labor, immigration, and human development.
In general, there are no restrictions on employers adjusting their labor force in response to fluctuating market conditions. Employers are flexible in offering salary increases, which are normally justified based on cost of living and prevailing practice consideration. Severance payment is subject to local labor law, the Labour Act Chapter 297. This Act differentiates between layoffs (voluntary termination and redundancy) and firing (dismissal). In the cases of voluntary termination and redundancy, the law provides for an appropriate notice period, payment in lieu of notice, severance, etc. In the case of redundancy, the employer must notify, where applicable, the recognized trade union or workers’ representative as well as the Labour Commissioner.
The law also provides for dismissal by the employer, but distinguishes between termination for “good and sufficient cause,” “termination for misconduct,” “unfair dismissal,” “constructive dismissal where the employer’s conduct makes it unreasonable to work,” and “summary dismissal where the employee commits an act of gross misconduct.” Since the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March 2020, the Department of Labour has been working with employers and the Belize Chamber of Commerce and Industry to navigate the laws relating to unemployment, layoff, and severance that resulted because of the economic downturn. There were anecdotal reports of dismissals in the private sector as a result of the financial constraints instigated by the COVID-19 crisis.
In addition to the general Social Security system, the government maintains a National Health Insurance scheme in certain marginalized communities throughout the country. The government also provides some assistance to unemployed persons who represent marginalized sectors of the community, e.g. single women, single mothers, and young unemployed persons. These services are not mandated by law.
Foreign investors who have a development concession are permitted to bring in skilled personnel to complement their local labor force and, if appropriate, establish training programs for Belizean nationals. Labor laws are not generally waived to attract or retain investment. There are no additional or different labor law provisions for designated processing areas or commercial free zones operating in Belize.
Belize has eleven trade unions and an umbrella organization, the National Trade Union Congress of Belize (NTUCB). Belize has ratified 50 International Labour Organization (ILO) conventions, of which 45 are in force, including Convention 182 against the worst forms of child labor.
Trade Unions are independent of the government and employers both in practice and in law. The Department of Labour recognizes registered unions and employers’ associations. Trade Union laws establish procedures for the registration and status of trade unions and employers’ organizations and for collective bargaining. Unions are common in the public sector (teachers, general public servants), the social security board, the utility sectors (water, telecommunications and electricity), and port stevedores. Some unions also represent workers in the agriculture sector, such as citrus, banana, and sugar.
Where employees are unionized, employers must refer to the laws relating to the operation of unions, namely the Trade Union and Employee’s Organizations Act and the Settlement of Disputes in Essential Services Act, as well as the terms of existing collective bargaining agreements between the employer and unions. Where disputes arise between an employer and employee in the private sector and where the employee is not represented by a union, both parties may approach the Labor Department to mediate discussions for an amicable solution. Failing a resolution, the matter is then referred to the labour tribunal for in depth negotiations. Failing negotiations, the matter is then referred to the court.
The national fire service, postal service, monetary and financial services, civil aviation and airport security services, and port authority pilots and security services are all deemed essential services. 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.
Stevedores at the Port of Belize Limited threatened industrial action in March 2020 and engaged in strike action later in July 2020. In March, the stevedores represented by the Christian Workers Union (CWU) protested reports that American Sugar Refineries/ Belize Sugar Industries was looking to export its sugar through the southern Port of Big Creek instead of the traditional Port of Belize. The move would result in job losses for Port of Belize stevedores. In July 2020, they commenced strike action at the Port of Belize to protest salary cuts and a refusal by port management to negotiate redundancy packages for thirty – six stevedores who were later laid off because of the COVID-19 economic crisis. When the Police Gang Suppression Unit was called in, tensions escalated, resulted in the use of tear gas and rubber bullets and in one protester being shot. The incident prompted the parties to reopen negotiations and in August 2020 the Port of Belize Limited and the CWU signed a three-year collective bargaining agreement.
Belize does have laws and regulations relating to international labor standards. There is also a system in place for labor inspectors to advocate on labor related concerns and complaints, as well as to visit and inspect business facilities to ensure adherence to local labor laws.
There are several gaps identified in relation to international labor standards. Belize’s legislation does not address a situation in which child labor is contracted between a parent and the employer. While there is need for better data, the penalties, remediation, and inspections do not sufficiently deter violations. The penalty for employing a child below minimum age is a fine not exceeding US $10 or imprisonment not exceeding two months.
Additionally, while there are laws that prohibit a wide range of discrimination in the work place, they are not effectively enforced and do not explicitly provide protections for persons with disability or against discrimination related to sexual orientation and/or gender identity. Finally, there is anecdotal evidence that certain vulnerable sectors, particularly migrant workers, undocumented persons, young service workers, and agricultural laborers, were regularly paid below the minimum wage and classified as contract and nonpermanent employees to avoid providing certain benefits.
As a result of COVID-19, the Labor Act was amended in 2020 to allow for employers to reduce wages where the working hours of an employee was reduced in special circumstances, to provide for leave of absence from work without pay with the consent of the employee in special circumstances and to provide for exemptions for the period of night rest. The special circumstances contemplated under the amendment include a “Declaration of a State of Emergency” or measures taken under law “to protect health and safety.” The passage of an Occupational Health and Safety Bill has been delayed for several years due to lack of consensus between tripartite stakeholders representing the government, private sector, and labor unions. 12. U.S. International Development Finance Corporation (DFC), and Other Investment Insurance or Development Finance Programs
13. Foreign Direct Investment and Foreign Portfolio Investment Statistics
* Source for Host Country Data:
The IMF’s Coordinated Direct Investment Survey does not have Belize data related to Inward and Outward Direct Investment. Statistics on foreign direct investments in Belize by country of origin is limited, including the total invested by U.S. investors. The Central Bank of Belize recorded total inflows of FDI at US $98.86 million in 2020 and outflows at US $27.1 million in the same period. Major sources of FDI include the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom. FDI inflows were concentrated primarily in construction, real estate, hotel and restaurant and financial intermediation.
Table 3: Sources and Destination of FDI
Data not available
Table 4: Sources of Portfolio Investment
Data not available