By Robert A Emmanuel
Prime Minister Gaston Browne has sought to “explain and clarify the position of the government regarding the former employees of LIAT (1974) Ltd”.
A statement issued early yesterday morning was in response to a speech on Monday by Senator David Massiah, General Secretary of the Antigua and Barbuda Workers’ Union (ABWU).
Senator Massiah said the issue of owed severance pay to ex-LIAT workers will “not go away” and called on the Prime Minister to “do right by the former employees”.
“To be fair to the government of Antigua and Barbuda, I accept that it is not just [this government] that should be looking at this matter…because you have a group of shareholders that should have all come together.
“But the Prime Minister and the government…asked the ABWU, ‘if you could get all the unions in the Caribbean to agree to the position, then we will go to the rest of the Caribbean countries and begin to sell that idea’ and we did; [and yet] none of them have been able to go to any Caribbean government to sell anything so the process is still with them,” Massiah said.
In the Prime Minister’s final speech in the Lower House on the budget, he had goaded the union to take him to court if it wants to secure anything over the 50 percent of owed pay currently on offer. Browne announced then that he was ending bilateral negotiations on the matter, to which Senator Massiah responded that the issue of LIAT severance payments was “not about court, it is about the process”.
Prime Minister Browne wrote in Tuesday’s statement, “the Antigua and Barbuda government opposed the decision by the other principal shareholders in LIAT (1974) Ltd to collapse the airline, with no obligation to its employees and creditors.
“Our preference was to maintain the airline, recognising that it had a crucial role in providing necessary transportation to people of the region and that, without it, regional air transportation for both goods and services would decline to the detriment of tourism, commercial activity, and the socialisation of the Caribbean people.
“Although [the government] had no corporate or legal responsibility to any of the creditors or former employees of LIAT 1974 Ltd, it decided to assume a “moral obligation” to provide compassionate assistance to the former employees of LIAT.
“Our compassionate severance was offered system-wide, on a non-discriminatory basis, affording national treatment to all LIAT workers, irrespective of their nationality, in keeping with the spirit of the Revised Treaty of Chaguaramas.”
The Prime Minister argued that his administration’s compassionate payment was despite owning only 32 percent of LIAT shares.
“In other words, the government decided to use monies and other resources that should have been spent on the needs of the entire population, such as improvement of roads and water supply, to provide compassionate assistance to the former LIAT employees,” the statement read.
The Prime Minister then shifted blame onto the other shareholder governments for the situation, saying “if the principal shareholder governments had taken the view that all of them had a moral obligation to provide assistance to all the former LIAT employees, an offer could have been made, formulated to provide such assistance, according to the ownership shareholding in the company.”
The latest discussions on LIAT followed a decision by Barbados Prime Minister Mia Mottley to reserve $10 million in cash and bonds for around 89 former LIAT workers.
The move, announced during Prime Minister Mottley’s budget presentation, was praised by unions in Barbados which called on other governments to do the same.
It also followed a similar decision by St Lucia Prime Minister Phillip J Pierre to enter into negotiations with LIAT workers in St Lucia.
Senator Massiah praised Mottley for “acknowledging that they are going to take care of their people”, to which Prime Minister Browne also made mention.
“The Barbados government has decided to [aid] Barbadian employees only, in a sum it has solely determined in light of its own circumstances,” Browne said.
“In this regard, neither the government of Barbados, nor any other shareholder government in LIAT (1974) Ltd, has acknowledged any obligation to the former workers, including those here in Antigua and Barbuda.
“Consequently, the position of the Workers’ Union that the government…should use taxpayers’ money to pay 100 percent of monies to employees and former employees to which they have no legal claim…is both reckless, misleading and unhelpful.”
LIAT 1974 was owned by a handful of regional governments but rarely made a profit in its five-decade history. When flights were grounded due to the Covid pandemic, its long-standing financial problems were aggravated forcing it towards liquidation.
The government has since held discussions on approximately EC$80 million owed to the hundreds of ex-workers.
Antigua and Barbuda has been fighting to establish a new entity – LIAT 2020 – to maintain direct air routes around the region. In the meantime, the airline has been operating a reduced schedule with a limited workforce.