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 Labour, Local Government, and Rural Development (Ministry of Labour) 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 unions, under their umbrella organizations the National Trade Union Congress and the Civil Society Steering Group, are represented in the Senate by a “Labour Senator.” This senator provides labor organizations direct input into the political and legislative process.
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 formal reports of antiunion discrimination, but there were reports workers were intimidated into either not joining a union or dropping union membership if they had joined.
In March the Christian Workers Union (CWU) threatened industrial action by stevedores operating the country’s largest seaport after the port authority refused to negotiate a redundancy package for some stevedores. With the onset of the COVID-19 crisis, the port dismissed 36 employees, including CWU members. The dismissal instigated a peaceful protest by union members, but this was met with force by the Gang Suppression Unit, which used tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse the crowd, injuring several men. The BPD initiated an investigation and removed the commanding officer of the operation after it was found that the commissioner of police had issued no order to use force. In August the Port of Belize Limited and the CWU signed a three-year collective bargaining agreement after 16 years of negotiations.
In September the University of Belize signed an agreement with the University of Belize Faculty and Staff Union. Under financial pressure from COVID-19-imposed restrictions on attendance and operations, the university administration sought to drastically reduce staffing and payment to cover shortfalls. The faculty and staff union formed as a result and was able to establish itself as negotiator on behalf of the workers.
Workers may file complaints with the Ministry of Labour or seek redress from the courts, although it remained difficult to prove that terminations were in retaliation to union activity. The ministry’s Labour Department generally handled labor cases without lengthy delays and dealt with appeals through arbitration outside the court system. The court did not apply the law requiring reinstatement of workers fired for union activity and provided monetary compensation instead.
The government generally enforced the law in the formal sector but did not effectively enforce it in the large informal sector due to lack of registration from employers. The Labour 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 not commensurate with other violations. There were several anecdotal reports of dismissals of employees in the private sector as a result of the financial constraints instigated by the COVID-19 crisis. The Labour Department did not provide data of registered complaints.
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 in the informal sector 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 continued to be 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 are not commensurate with those for similar crimes, such as kidnapping. The government did not effectively enforce the law. Resources and inspections to enforce compliance were insufficient. 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 the service sector, including restaurants and shops, particularly among the South Asian and Chinese communities.
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 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 and 13. Children ages 14 to 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 14 are explicitly permitted to work in certain “industrial undertakings,” which can include mining, manufacturing, and construction. Children younger than 16 are excluded from work in factories, and those younger than 18 are excluded from working at night or in certain kinds of employment deemed dangerous. The Labour 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 from the age of 10, taking into consideration the well-being of the child and continued enrollment in school. National legislation does not address a common 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 Labour Department has primary responsibility for implementing labor policies, but it did not effectively enforce the law. Inspectors from the Labour and Education Departments are responsible for enforcing these regulations, with the bulk of the enforcement falling to truancy officers. Penalties were not criminal nor commensurate with those for similar crimes. 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.
Schooling is mandatory until age 14, and many poorer parents withdraw their children from school on their 14th birthday to put them to work in the informal sector. Children working for their parents are exempt from many of the protections provided in the formal system. Officers of the Ministry of Education are unable to act legally against parents who withdraw their child from school against their child’s wishes.
Some children were vulnerable to forced labor, particularly in the informal 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 hiring persons with disabilities and to their access to the workspace, as well as sexual orientation of applicants. 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. The law mandates equal pay for equal work, but women lagged behind men in wages and promotions (see section 6). There are also restrictions on women working in certain industries, including mining, construction, factories, energy, water, and transportation.
In January, two female police officers took legal action against the BPD after they were among a group of officers who were disciplined for wearing dreadlock hairstyles, contrary to BPD regulations. Commissioner of Police Chester Williams indicated all members of the department irrespective of their status or gender should abide by BPD policies.
e. Acceptable Conditions of Work
The national minimum wage was above the poverty-limit income level. 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.
The Ministry of Labour did not consistently enforce minimum wage, hour, and health and safety regulations. Inspectors could make unannounced visits and initiate sanctions, but 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 commensurate with those for similar crimes. In July the Ministry of Labour established the Labour Complaints Tribunal after a nine-year hiatus. It was unclear how many cases the tribunal heard during the year.
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.
Workers have the right to remove themselves from situations that endanger health or safety without jeopardy to their employment. As of October no major accidents caused death or serious injury.