by Gemma Handy
Hundreds of former workers at one of the country’s biggest resorts are still owed more than EC$7 million in outstanding pay and severance almost two years after the 464-room complex closed.
The Jolly Beach Resort was once a favoured haunt for budget travellers wishing to experience Antigua’s famed west coast. It has been shut to guests since March 2020 after the Covid pandemic exacerbated the financial woes which had seen it undergo a string of handovers.
On Monday, the Workers Union (ABWU) which represents the hotel’s 500 ex-staff wrote to Prime Minister Gaston Browne requesting a meeting to iron out a resolution.
The resort is currently in receivership and is said to owe government and statutory bodies alone a staggering EC$80 million.
It was used for several months last year as a government quarantine centre; today its unkempt, overgrown beachfront is a sore reminder of its fall from grace.
ABWU Deputy General Secretary Chester Hughes said yesterday that although the matter has been brought before the courts and an order issued for the payment of funds, they have not yet been forthcoming.
He told Observer that frustrated former staff – several of whom had worked at the resort for decades – were still awaiting compensation.
At least two have since died.
Esther Parker, who had been employed there for 20 years, passed away last February while owed an estimated EC$60,000.
Her daughter Gisel Meade told Observer she believes stress played a major role in her mother’s demise. Parker, 51, had suffered a number of health complications including liver problems and died in hospital while having surgery, Meade said.
“She left two young kids, aged nine and 10. It’s been a horrible year for us. We are trying to struggle on because her husband also worked at Jolly Beach. He’d been there 18 or 19 years so they were both out of work at the same time,” she explained.
Meade added that the receipt of her mother’s money would go some way towards helping her young siblings in Parker’s absence.
Hughes told Observer the union hoped government would “step in and assist the process”.
“The government said it was a shareholder as it had purchased the resort via a debt swap but nothing has yet materialised,” he said.
“We have heard nothing more so we are seeking some clarity on where we are heading regarding some sort of settlements.
“We are talking about hundreds of workers who have not been paid a cent in monies they have worked for.
“When the hotel closed, employees were owed millions of dollars in retroactive payments, vacation pay, severance, unpaid wages and retirement fund contributions which were deducted from salaries and withheld from the bank.
“This is unacceptable and we cannot continue to have this matter linger without intervention from the government.”
Hughes said in addition to the EC$7 million, the total amount owed is now substantially higher due to interest placed on the debt by last year’s court ruling, along with Labour Code-stipulated interest on severance of 10 percent per annum.
PM Browne’s Chief of Staff Lionel Hurst said there was “no doubt” that the country’s leader would meet with the workers’ representatives.
He said the resort was currently valued at significantly less than its total debt. The amount owed to government, such as in outstanding Medical Benefits and Social Security contributions, is almost three times more than the circa EC$30 million the property might sell for, Hurst said.
“There have been several attempts to resuscitate Jolly Beach by bringing in private capital. Several private firms have made overtures but it’s extraordinarily difficult to say if any one firm has come so close that we will go with that one,” he explained.
“Government is the resort’s largest debtor and these are secured debts so they will take priority over other creditors, including the workers,” he continued.
“We have started to turn the debt into shareholding so government will become the largest shareholder. We want it to be a profitable company,” Hurst added, explaining that the hope is that working capital from new investors will help resuscitate the resort and put it back into commercial use.
The ABWU is also currently fighting the corner of 150 former employees with ground handling company Caribbean Airport Services (CAS).
LIAT 1974, now in administration, owns 51 percent of CAS with the remainder owned by a Barbados-based firm.
“These workers have been home since the pandemic and have not received a cent,” Hughes said, adding that government should bear responsibility for ex-CAS workers in light of its takeover of LIAT.
Hurst said the latter was a matter for LIAT’s administrator.