(CMC) – The Antigua and Barbuda government has given former pilots with the cash-strapped airline, LIAT, a deadline to accept the proposals regarding outstanding severance payments owed to them even as the employees continue to express disappointment at the way the matter is being handled.
Minister of State in the Ministry of Finance, Lennox Weston, has told the Leeward Islands Airline Pilots Association (LIALPA) that they have just one month to make up their minds about the latest 50 per cent compassionate payment offer made by the Gaston Browne government.
“We had a meeting and the [Antigua and Barbuda Workers’ Union] said they were not accepting the offer, but then [some of the pilots] figured they are prima donnas and they went behind the union’s back and tried to strike a deal with the prime minister.
Weston warned that if the situation is not resolved by the new year, the benefits will not equal the 50 per cent currently being offered.
“We are not going to let this sit on the table until the new year. We are going to move on; we will follow the law,” Weston said.
But in an open letter to Prime Minister Browne, the LIALPA said while its members continue to express gratitude for the November 20 correspondence “which identifies a modified version of the September 3rd concept to pay all terminated and soon to be terminated employees of LIAT (1974) Ltd, this is the only concept, to date, that offers some financial relief to all staff members.
“We are very disappointed that your caring cabinet was not convinced by you to award the fifty (50%) per cent on entitlements. You stated that you understood the gravity of the situation and you stood by your word. It is also very unfortunate that you have closed the door to further discussions on the issue.”
Last month, Prime Minister Browne appealed to Caribbean trade unions to re-think their positions regarding the latest offer made to laid-off workers of the airline.
Browne said what is required is the cooperation of the unions, noting that “some union leaders…are making unreasonable demands, making demands in which they have no legal basis to do.
‘As I have said to the other unions if they really think they are owed 100 per cent of their severance and staff liabilities, go to court and prove it. If they can’t prove it then the governments are giving you a compassionate payment, take it and run.”
The airline had laid off an estimated 90 per cent of its staff last year as part of a restructuring exercise and has resumed operations on a much smaller scale.
President of the Dominica-based Waterfront and Allied Workers Union (WAWU), Donald Rolle, said that the regional unions are united in seeking the millions of dollars owed to the workers and have rejected the latest offer from the shareholder governments.
“The offer on the table which is to pay the LIAT workers, 50 per cent of their redundancy pay and there is a component that involves compensation by issuing of lands and bonds. But the unions around the Caribbean have sort of rejected that in its entirety, but we are in negotiations with the governments. We have a position and as it is now, we are at opposite ends of the table,” Rolle said.
The airline is owned by the governments of Antigua and Barbuda, Barbados, Dominica and St Vincent and the Grenadines (SVG). Last year, Browne said that a decision had been taken that would allow Barbados and SVG to turn over their shares in LIAT to Antigua & Barbuda for one EC dollar (One EC dollar=US$0.37 cents).
Browne said that LIAT, under administration, had returned an operational profit for the months of July and August and that there is also evidence that a leaner, more efficient LIAT can be profitable.
In their letter, LIALPA said the Antigua and Barbuda Prime Minister had “charged the union leaders with the almost impossible task of convincing its membership that this is a superior offer.
“The letter dated November 20th has significantly changed the clarifications discussed in the October 8th meeting. Specifically, the offer eliminates land as being a guaranteed component of the deal by stating “bonds & land; or a combination of the foregoing wherever possible”
“This is precisely why we sought to meet with you, to get clarity for our members. Now, we are forced to consider a vaguely written proposal again,” the pilots said.
They said they are experiencing trouble trying to decipher several matters including when will the 30 per cent of the cash be available, how will these funds be disseminated, where are the plots of land and when “will we see the decree from the Cabinet waiving the Alien Landowner’s License and associated fees and taxes,” among other concerns.
“The lack of details and structure makes it impossible for most to make an informed decision. We are left to believe that the Government does not fully appreciate the dire circumstances that we experience every day. This scepticism has been fuelled by the length of time it has taken to transform your concept first mentioned in 2020, to a written document on September 3rd, 2021, and then finally, on November 20th 2021.”
In the letter to Prime Minister Browne, the pilots also note that many of them “find it inconceivable that this is a compassionate offer because of the non-recourse approach.
“If this were truly a compassionate offer, we should not have to the sign away our rights to any proceeds from the sales of the Company’s assets. This is further compounded by the fact that no other shareholder has offered a long-term solution to our owed entitlements. This is not easy decision to make as hard-earned funds are being left on the table.
“We fully appreciate that these are taxpayers’ funds however, you have preferred to spend EC$500,000 per month on a visibility schedule, rather than to settle the amounts owed to the terminated employees of LIAT. Some of whom have given, over 40 years to the airline,” LIALPA added.
They said that if the proposals are to be successful, “we urge that you provide a structured offer with timelines.
“We are hopeful for an amicable solution to make this offer a palatable one. This may encourage all terminated employees to accept the offer and access these greatly needed resources.”