By Robert A Emmanuel
Prime Minister Gaston Browne has issued a warning to the unions representing ex-LIAT (1974) workers cautioning against any further delay in agreeing on a settlement.
On Tuesday, the Prime Minister responded to a question by a former LIAT worker at a town hall meeting held in the St John’s Rural North constituency.
According to the resident, who stated that she was a former cabin stewardess, many workers are concerned over the lack of progress made in the negotiations.
Prime Minister Browne noted that the government will continue to negotiate in good faith with the unions, but warned that he was contemplating engaging directly with the former workers.
Government has previously offered ex-staff half of their entitlements in cash, land and bonds.
“The Antigua and Barbuda Workers Union that represents a significant amount of the staff continue to insist their workers will not accept the 50 percent; they have said that they will settle for nothing less than 100 percent,” Browne said.
“So, what I was advised by the staff of LIAT is that we should negotiate bilateral deals with the staff and forget about the unions.”
The regional airline, LIAT (1974), was forced to close its operations and lay off its staff in March 2020 after the Covid pandemic exacerbated its financial difficulties.
The government has since held discussions on nearly EC$80 million owed to the hundreds of ex-workers. However, the government maintained its position of a 50 percent payment to the workers.
During Prime Minister’s Questions in Parliament earlier this month, Browne argued that the union’s insistence on receiving 100 percent payment for its workers has been the impediment in discussions.
At the time, he called the union’s stance “extremely unreasonable” and, yesterday, reiterated a similar point.
“I think most of LIAT’s staff understand that the offer of 50 percent is a reasonable offer, so what I said to them is, the elections are imminent and immediately after the elections we will certainly negotiate with the staff on a bilateral basis, assuming there is no consensus among the unions by then,” Browne explained.
Meanwhile, former president of Leeward Islands Airline Pilots Associations (LIALPA), Carl Burke, called for patience saying the talks were delicate.
He noted that, considering the lives that will be impacted by any agreement made, negotiations should be done thoroughly.
Burke said, “I don’t think it would be possible to complete the negotiations before Christmas, but maybe an interim payment to offer the staff some relief since some of them have had no income for two years.
“Based on the seriousness of these negotiations, it may take some time as the union will want to be diligent to come up with a reasonable package for the former employees.”
Burke called for the administration to re-engage in a more cordial manner.
“I believe that if the parties were to sit down with the government and understand the government’s situation, the government understanding that the staff have been suffering [more could be accomplished],” he said.
Burke also stated that all regional governments should be more involved in the talks considering the past importance of the airline to intra-regional travel—a similar sentiment shared by the Prime Minister in Parliament earlier this month.
“I think it should be a collective effort amongst all the governments of the region since LIAT for 60-plus years served the region well, and the economies of the region benefitted,” Burke added.
Last month, Barbados’ National Union of Public Workers (NUPW) called on its government to follow St Lucia’s decision to settle its outstanding severance payments to its citizens terminated by LIAT.