by Gemma Handy
The first court hearing emanating from legal action launched by dozens of former APUA employees who could collectively be owed millions in unpaid pensions will take place in a fortnight.
The state utility firm claims there are contrasting interpretations of a clause in a collective agreement signed decades earlier between APUA and the Antigua Trades and Labour Union (AT&LU).
APUA is seeking to have the employees’ claim struck out, saying only the company or the AT&LU can bring the matter before court – as they were the parties that forged the original deal – and not industrial relations consultant Anderson Carty who is representing the ex-workers.
A hearing to determine if the case will indeed be struck out will take place on June 4 at the industrial court.
To date, 45 erstwhile staff have joined what is said to be one of the largest class action suits of its kind. Several more have come forward with inquiries since news of the lawsuit broke, and Carty thinks there are likely to be hundreds others affected.
If successful, it could see APUA forced to fork out millions of dollars to ex-staff who say they have never received a cent in pension money since their mandatory retirement at the age of 60. Some of the claims date back more than 20 years.
“If you read the clause in the collective agreement, there is no other interpretation that can be given,” Carty told Observer. He believes that consequently there is no justification for APUA’s stance regarding who may raise legal action concerning it.
Carty also said the country’s Labour Code entitles employees to seek representation of their choosing.
The agreement in question stipulates workers be paid a lump gratuity sum – equivalent to severance – when they retire, in addition to a monthly pension payment thereafter determined by salary and length of service.
Carty claims, while they received severance, the pensions clause has never been honoured, save for a handful of cases in which lone litigants have taken action.
In those cases, the ex-workers have settled out of court and apparently even been made to sign non-disclosure agreements.
Carty thinks APUA is keen to avoid a court judgment – and keep the settlements quiet – for fear of opening the floodgates to hundreds more claims.
He previously told Observer he was determined to fight through the courts so that every future employee retired by APUA will receive a pension.
Carty also asserts that APUA has never previously claimed the clause has conflicting interpretations.
Correspondence from APUA to Carty, which Observer has seen, implies the reason pensions have never been paid is because of a lack of complaint by ex-employees.
A letter dated July 14 2020, signed by APUA’s HR manager Rodney Simon, stated that the lump sum paid to retiring workers “has been acceptable to our employees over the years”.
“And as such, has remained unchallenged by all of the four bargaining units representing our workers,” it added.
Carty said he is keen for the AT&LU to attend the June 4 hearing.
“I want them to give evidence to confirm APUA never raised the interpretation issue before,” he added.
Yesterday, the AT&LU’s general secretary Hugh Joseph told Observer, “At this time no decision has been made as to whether or not the union will be attending.”
He added that the body remained in discussions with APUA as it has been for well over a decade. Last month, Joseph said the Labour Department had already confirmed that the collective agreement is a legally binding document. Joseph said the utility firm appeared to have deliberately breached its obligations.
Carty previously estimated an average pension for his clients would be in the range of EC$1,200 to EC$1,500 a month each. A conservative estimate using those figures amounts to almost EC$300,000 per claimant with 20 years of service – which could land APUA with an eight-figure bill for all 45.
Yesterday, APUA again declined to comment on the matter, saying it remained the subject of active legal proceedings. Attorneys representing the utility firm did not respond to requests for comment up to news time.