Belize: 120 Belizeans axed for Chinese workers in Vaca Dam

Pedro Ardon, former Vaca worker, claims Belizean labourers are being replaced by Chinese

Source: Amandala Online

The 105-million-dollar Vaca hydro dam project has been hailed as a major investment for Belize, and particularly important in providing jobs for labourers in these increasingly tough economic times. However, reports to our newspaper today claim that roughly 120 Belizeans have been gradually let go for imported Chinese labour—allegations disputed by the developer, the Belize Electric Company Limited (BECOL).

Dam projects are often contentious for a variety of reasons, ranging from environmental issues to labour concerns, and the three-phase project to develop the hydro resources of Belize’s Macal River has proved no different.
The last hydro project on the Macal River, Chalillo, came under a storm of protests over environmental and economic concerns, but the current project to build a new 18 MW hydro-facility at Vaca on the same river has been under the microscope on continuing allegations of unfair and questionable labour practices.
In January 2008, roughly 150 workers at the Vaca Hydro facility – which is due to be brought onstream in January 2010 – went on strike protesting unfair wages, and just last month, the US State Department in its Trafficking In Persons (TIP) Report cited the project on allegations that company officials had brought in 70 laborers from Nepal and India to work under questionable conditions. The report said the Government of Belize had eventually repatriated the workers, while the company had been charged for withholding travel documents.
The allegations don’t end there, however. This evening, Amandala interviewed Pedro Ardon, a resident of the Stann Creek Valley area, who is alleging that he and scores of other Belizean workers have been fired so that the jobs could be given to Chinese immigrant workers.
The Belize Electric Company Limited (BECOL), owned by Canadian company, Fortis Inc., had contracted a widely known Chinese company, Sinohydro Corporation – the same company that worked on Chalillo — to undertake works at Vaca.
BECOL’s operations manager, Stephen Usher, told Amandala when we contacted him today that the conditions set out in the agreement stipulate that the Chinese company would only bring in skilled labour, and the rest of the work is to be done by locals.
According to Usher, the company currently employs 150 to 160 Chinese and 350 to 400 locals, mostly from the Cayo District, and he has no knowledge of local labourers being replaced by Chinese.
Ardon, who contends that he and four others were given termination letters on the same day in February this year, claimed that he had been working for the Chinese company for 15 months, and was fired without overdue back pay (he claims $250 to $300 worth) being settled.
According to Ardon, he did not bother to file a complaint with the Labour Department, because he had lost faith after having made his first complaint without receiving any satisfaction from Government officials.
The former Sinohydro worker told our newspaper that he started out receiving $3.00 an hour in October 2007, and the company promised them a raise for every three months they stayed on. He said that his pay rose to $3.18, then to $3.40, then to $3.60, but remained frozen, even though he was moved up from cutting steel and packing cement to operating a loader.
With overtime, said Ardon, he took home $620 every other Friday—this to support himself, his wife, and their daughter.
Ardon claimed that he and four others were let go with two weeks’ notice to bring in Chinese workers, some of whom did supervisory work while others provided unskilled labour. Other nationalities were brought in as well, said Ardon.
He recalled that a group from Nepal had also been brought in to work on the Vaca project. Ardon said that roughly 60 workers from Nepal were brought in as labourers, but they alleged that the company had been holding their documents and paying them as little as US$5 a day, roughly $400 in their currency (rupees).
As Amandala reported last month, that case was cited in this year’s Trafficking in Persons report published by the US State Department and released in June 2009.
   The 2009 TIP Report said the Government of Belize (GOB) had charged the Chinese company with five counts of withholding travel documents, after reviewing allegations that the company had trafficked 70 Nepalese and Indian workers to Belize to work on Vaca.
GOB repatriated 60 victims, said the report, with transportation costs paid by the company that had contracted the workers.
Media reports of worker dissatisfaction on the Vaca site surfaced in January 2008, when workers, numbering roughly 150, protested against what they complained were very low wages.
Although they are listed on the Internet as having a Benque Viejo del Carmen address, Sinohydro officials could not be located when we tried today, and no contact information is listed for them in that town.
However, BECOL’s Stephen Usher told our newspaper that workers are sometimes hired and fired “on a monthly basis,” as sometimes there are disputes between workers and the company’s management, and the Belizeans tend to walk off the job, some claiming that they work too hard for the wages paid.
He told Amandala that the Department of the Environment, the Belize Social Security Board and the Labour Department do regular visits on the site, and he has no knowledge of Belizean labourers being replaced with Chinese labourers.
Today, Amandala received an e-mail from Kenneth Gale, a retired US judge of the Superior Circuit Court of the State of California now resident in Belize, who now employs Ardon. Gale stated that roughly 120 Chinese workers had been brought in recently to replace Belizeans.
Labour Commissioner, Ivan Williams, told Amandala this afternoon that this is the first he was hearing of the allegations of displacement of Belizean labourers and allegations of back pay arrears, though he recalls Labour having to step in some time ago to deal with child labour issues at the project site before he became Commissioner.
Williams requested more information on who from the Labour Department was contacted on the issue, when and where.
When we asked Ardon for details of the complaint, all he could tell us was that he had visited the Labour office in San Ignacio to lodge concerns about safety measures for welding. He complained that he and other workers had been forced to assist with a welding project without the proper eyewear and his eyes were affected so badly he could not sleep for two days.
He said that the Labour Officer from San Ignacio, whose name he said he could not remember, told him he could not assist him, but told him to go to the Social Security and when he took his case to Social Security, he still did not get redress.
He said that they also complained to a BECOL engineer, who told them he could not help them.
The Vaca Dam is the third phase of the Macal Hydroelectric project, and Usher told our newspaper that the project is moving towards completion, as the facility should commence generation by January 2010, though work on two abutments for the dam should extend to the end of the dry season, around May next year.