By Carlena Knight
“LIAT is going to test the commitment of leaders in this region to Caribbean integration,” declared Prime Minister Gaston Browne.
Browne was speaking on the Observer AM show on Monday, following a discussion held over the weekend with leaders of fellow Caribbean shareholder governments – Barbados, Dominica, Grenada, and St Vincent and the Grenadines – and other entities like the Caribbean Development Bank (CDB), over the liquidation of the longtime regional air carrier.
It was revealed that Antigua and Barbuda may feel the biggest impact of its closure as, according to Vincentian Prime Minister Dr Ralph Gonsalves, the Antigua-based carrier owes staff approximately $94 million in total severance and holiday pay, with 400 of LIAT’s 600 workers being Antiguan nationals.
Browne said discussions over the carrier would “test the commitment of leaders in this region to Caribbean integration”.
He said he feared individuals were “thinking singularly”.
“They are concerned about their countries only and even in the case of Antigua and Barbuda that has been providing a regional service there is no consideration for the fact that it is practically our only export within the OECS and Caricom.
“As far as they are concerned, they must opportunistically seek to get a piece of the pie and that is very dangerous.”
LIAT is “not an Antiguan institution” but a regional one, the PM continued.
“The formula that they are trying to use to determine who should be given compassionate payment and how much, I want to warn them, because I have said that any compassionate payment should be based on the shareholding not based on the residency of workers, because in that case you will find for example, the severance payment of the 80 million dollars, they are going to ask Antigua and Barbuda to pay 62 million which is inequitable.
“These are some of the issues we have to address,” said Browne.
He added that as a last resort Antigua and Barbuda may even look at opting out of the OECS and Caricom altogether and become an independent state, accusing fellow shareholder government leaders of having sparse interest in integration and enhancing the region.
“The benefits of Caribbean should be shared. I am not trying to promote any strife here among heads or among Caricom countries but, at the same time where I see inequities especially when they affect the government of Antigua and Barbuda, then I have to address them,” he explained.
Regarding the liquidation of LIAT, PM Browne detailed the country’s position on the matter.
“Now Antigua and Barbuda’s support of a liquidation is contingent on the pursuance of the establishment of a new regional airline [and] if there is no commitment to a new airline then our position would be that LIAT should not be collapsed but there should be a workout situation.
“As to how practicable it is, the staff for example are mature enough to take the haircuts in the interest of having something in the air rather than nothing then it is left to be seen but what I am opposed to is for individual governments to opportunistically try to establish their own independent airline because if it is difficult collectively to manage and maintain a viable airline then what is the possibility of any one country to go it alone?”
Browne added that if no other options are agreed upon, the last resort may be for Antigua and Barbuda to look at operating its own airline as well.
Unions have been meeting with the airline’s various departments to discuss the way forward.