Belize Court Recognizes Right to Strike, Raises Questions on Union Immunity"
By: Omar Silva
Belize City: Tuesday 30th May 2023
Geneviève Chabot, a Justice of the High Court, issued a significant ruling today regarding a matter between the Christian Workers Union (CWU) and the Port of Belize. The ruling pertains to a strike that took place from January 20 to 27, 2022, on the port compound located on Caesar Ridge Road. The Port of Belize filed a claim for damages caused during the strike, alleging that it was illegal. The CWU, on the other hand, denied the allegations and rejected the claims, citing statutory immunities, privileges, and defenses afforded to trade unions and their members under the Trade Unions Act and the Trade Unions and Employers Organisations Act.
The court's role in this case was to determine the issue of statutory immunity as a preliminary question of law. Attorney Darrell Bradley spoke about today's ruling, explaining the complexities and importance of the case. He discussed the historical context of trade unions and their immunities under the Trade Union Act, which protected them from liability for tortious actions during industrial disputes. However, when the legislation was amended in the 1990s to create a more comprehensive regime, those immunities were not incorporated, leaving the Trade Union Act still in effect.
The court's ruling stated that the new legislation impliedly repealed the provisions granting immunities to trade unions, thereby removing their protection. This ruling was significant as it explicitly recognized the right of trade unions to strike, a right that had been implied but never expressly acknowledged in Belize. However, the ruling also emphasized that this right must be exercised within the boundaries of legality. The question of whether the specific strike in question was legal or not would need to be determined in a trial.
Justice Chabot clarified that she would not decide, at this stage, the legality of the strike under Belizean laws, indicating that a trial would be necessary to make that determination. Attorney Bradley noted that certain factors remained uncertain due to what he considered an oversight in the legislation. He also highlighted the potential implications of the issue of immunity, suggesting that being a union member might not be as beneficial as before.
Bradley argued that the issue of statutory immunities should be left to the parliament to decide, rather than the court. He emphasized that if trade unions have a constitutional right to strike but employers can sue them, it undermines that right. In the current case, the Port of Belize is suing the president and executive members of the CWU, which Bradley believes erodes the effectiveness of the right to strike. He expressed concerns that civil liabilities resulting from litigation could render the right to strike practically meaningless.
The report concludes by mentioning that the union may consider appealing the ruling. The legal representation in the case consisted of Senior Counsel Godfrey Smith and Hector Guerra representing the Port of Belize, Magalie Perdomo representing the CWU, and Darrell Bradley representing the other defendants, including Guy Neal, Winfield Dennison, Kenton Blanco, James Neal, and Wendell Whitaker.