By Latrishka Thomas
The exasperation felt by LIAT employees in recent months while the airline has been grounded due to Covid-19 has been ratcheted up further following news that the regional carrier will be liquidated.
During an appearance on OBSERVER AM yesterday, the General Secretary of the Antigua and Barbuda Workers’ Union (ABWU) and the Chairman of Leeward Islands Airline Pilots Association (LIALPA), lamented that the shareholder governments’ and management’s handling of the situation has added to the already stressful experience for workers.
“There is a lot of disappointment. There is a lot of worry about severance and what are the next steps. We are not sure if there is a successor airline. We are hearing things behind the scenes and it’s pretty unsettling,” LIALPA Chairman Patterson Thompson said.
David Massiah, General Secretary of the ABWU, said he believes the appropriate word to describe the employees’ feelings is “disgust”.
Massiah explained that for many years, unions have been complaining about the ineptness of the airline’s management and have even suggested ways to save the airline, to no avail.
In addition to that, he disclosed that in a meeting held last week to discuss the three-month extension of the temporary lay-off of workers, “the workers would have said unanimously to my union, which we would have conveyed to the company, that because of the prevailing situation we are going to understand and we can basically move forward with the extension but this extension must be with the condition that the staff receive at least 90 percent of what is inside of that pension fund for them”.
But then “all hell broke loose on the weekend”, he remarked saying that the matter could have been handled differently.
Furthermore, Massiah revealed that an emergency meeting of the unions was called on Monday where one decision was taken.
He said that they told the CEO of LIAT, Julie Reifer Jones, “madam CEO, that letter that you are going to send out to staff about their pension and whatever it is, you need to hold on that until we the unions go back … let us communicate and talk before you can send out that letter”.
Despite that, a letter began circulating to all staff that afternoon, adding to the already growing annoyance.
And that was not the only missive that made its way through the public on Monday.
Chairman of the shareholder governments of the regional airline, Dr Ralph Gonsalves, also wrote in an effort to assure employees that payment of outstanding salaries and arrears “will be urgently addressed”.
Added to that, he shared that the Antigua-based airline owes its staff an estimated $94 million in total severance and holiday payment, which it is unable to pay.
Gonsalves said the major shareholders – Antigua and Barbuda, Dominica, Barbados, and St Vincent and the Grenadines – have made every effort to support the airline, “however, with the current pandemic affecting all sectors of national economies, the major shareholders are unable to give LIAT needed support”, and that “both the board of directors and the major shareholders agree that the airline cannot survive this crisis”.
When asked whether employees would be willing to accept a portion of the monies owed to them, Thompson and Massiah said that the fact that some persons were on the eve of their retirement must be considered.
“I can’t see that unions can sit down and contemplate that. I can’t sit down and tell a man who would have worked from 1973 until now who was about to retire and now he is coming to his sunset that he has to take a shave off of that money that he was basically relying on to help him go forward,” Massiah said. “The governments are morally obligated to pay the severance”, even if over a period of time, Thompson added.