PM Browne: LIAT restructuring needs staff support

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LIAT staff and their unions are being asked to fully support pending restructuring plans, along with a proposal from one prime minister who said his government will soon make the regional carrier an essential service.

The appeal comes from Antigua and Barbuda’s leader, Gaston Browne, who told OBSERVER media this week of the ideas that were discussed at a meeting of all parties – including LIAT workers’ union representatives – late last year.

“One of the changes that we’ll make is a change to the laws to make sure LIAT becomes an essential service so that all of the disruptions that would have taken place in the past which would have affected the service of LIAT would come to an end because, if I can recall, they’re costly and almost invariably they are counterproductive,” he said.

Essential services refer to a class of occupations that have been legislated by a government to have special restrictions in regard to labour actions, such as not being allowed to legally strike. This is outlined by the International Labour Office (ILO), a United Nations agency.

Browne said this change would improve the airline’s financial situation and services offered.

“So my government will be moving very shortly to make LIAT an essential service, and we are counting on the staff at LIAT to cooperate fully. It is absolutely essential for us to make those changes if we are going to get other shareholder governments to help subsidise the cost to keep LIAT in the air.”

The airline, which has been operational for over six decades and which is based in Antigua, has been plagued for years by strike action and financial losses.

Several restructuring plans have been executed, while there has been a quick turnover of Chief Executive Officers.

On numerous occasions the staff have taken industrial action after being at loggerheads with management over pay increases, working conditions and scheduling, among other things.

Browne said those issues need not continue to prevail.

“What we are seeking to do now is to place LIAT on a sustainable footing, and whereas we are seeking to get the other governments that LIAT, or countries for that matter and governments, that LIAT services to come on board, we are saying that there must be some internal changes, that we must restructure LIAT and see that it becomes more efficient,” he said.

The prime minister added, “There are some cultural malpractices that must be addressed. LIAT has to be run as a very efficient organisation, and even though we do accept that based on certain structural factors that there will still be a need for certain subsidies, that subsidy has to be kept at a minimum.”

OBSERVER media reached out to the various LIAT unions for comment, but the parties have asked for time to review the prime minister’s comments and they are also awaiting a report that should have been submitted a month ago.

Meanwhile, according to the Antigua and Barbuda Cabinet notes, “The Cabinet of Antigua and Barbuda has authorised a new loan facility from the Caribbean Development Bank (CDB) in the amount of US$16 million to re-capitalise LIAT while it undertakes restructuring. The Cabinet accepts that its efforts are designed to save the airline which is vital to the survival of the sub-region, and to Antigua and Barbuda’s national interests.”

Earlier this week, Barbados’ Minister of Tourism, Kerrie Symmonds, was quoted in Barbados Today as saying a major shake-up is coming for the struggling regional airline, as main shareholder governments await a detailed report on the airline’s operations.

He said that among the changes will be the implementation of a performance index to help determine promotion and pay increases, possibly a new funding model and amendments to the labour laws in Antigua and Barbuda.

The minister did not state however, whether Barbados, the majority shareholder, would cut back on its contribution to the air carrier, but gave Barbados Today a strong indication that there had to be some changes to how the airline was being subsidised.

Antigua and Barbuda, St. Vincent and the Grenadines and Dominica are the other major shareholders in the airline.

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