Workers picket Parliament during Budget Speech to demand overdue payments

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Scores of workers picketed for outstanding overtime and severance payments outside Parliament yesterday during the 2022 Budget Speech (Photos by Makeida Antonio)
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By Makeida Antonio

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On arguably one of the biggest days for the government of Antigua and Barbuda, current and former workers representing several organisations joined a picket on Queen Elizabeth Highway to get Prime Minister Gaston Browne’s attention during his delivery of the 2022 Budget Speech.

As residents travelled to work and school yesterday, workers from Caribbean Airline Services (CAS), Clarevue Psychiatric Hospital, the Care Project, Fiennes Institute and the Jolly Beach Resort were observed holding placards that demanded outstanding payments for overtime, severance, and thrift funds.

Deputy General Secretary of the Antigua and Barbuda Workers Union (ABWU) Chester Hughes spoke to Observer during the joint picket and expressed frustration on behalf of hundreds of former Jolly Beach Resort staff and several CAS workers who have lost confidence in the government’s ability to communicate and assist with getting the monies owed to them.

“All you’re hearing from this government is that they’re in the process of purchasing the hotel. We’ve been hearing that for over a year now since Covid. We’ve been hearing from the Chief of Staff and even from the mouth of the Prime Minister that they have shares and they are in the process of having buyers,” Hughes said yesterday.

Hughes remained sceptical about the government’s position in ensuring the aggrieved workers receive full remuneration after years of financial distress, especially during the last two years of living through a pandemic which caused them additional struggles.

“Just yesterday (Wednesday) you’re hearing Lennox Weston saying to the people of this country that they are on the European stock market trying to raise US$200 million to purchase Jolly Beach. All this is just not sounding right and you can’t trust their word,” he stated.

With regards to CAS, Hughes has renewed his call for the government to provide clear and consistent communication on the matter.

“We understand that the minority shareholder of CAS offered the receiver monies to at least pay 49 percent of the severance that is owed to the workers and it was refused. So, we want to know, we want answers, we want reasonable answers for these workers.

“It is unfair that they are out here suffering, languishing. Government has not even called them to say ‘look here is a package, here is a relief for you for this time; the majority of the country is back out to work, you’re still suffering, here is something on behalf of the government to hold you and your family together’. People scrunching, people suffering and nobody cares in government; that’s why we are here,” Hughes asserted.

General Secretary of the Antigua and Barbuda Public Service Association (ABPSA) Janella Evanston was also present at the picket.

She told Observer that unofficial reports received indicated talks of timelines concerning payments to Fiennes staff and others — such as those from Clarevue and the Care Project — were held within the Ministry of Health on Wednesday, a day after a staged protest outside the Treasury.

“We received informal information that the Minister of Health had called all the heads of departments within the ministry, Clarevue, Care Project and Fiennes to see what was the total amount and what he could have done yesterday at Cabinet to pay the workers,” Evanston said.

The ABPSA General Secretary reiterated that plans remain in place to have more industrial action since she could not confirm the intervention of Minister of Health Sir Molwyn Joseph to pay workers.

“We haven’t received any formal information in regards to the payments and timelines, so our actions continue until we receive timelines as to when payments can be made to the workers,” Evanston added.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Browne said former Jolly Beach Resort workers should lessen their pressure on the government as it works towards acquisition of the property to pay out severance.

“We will ensure payment of severance due to the Jolly Beach workers upon successful acquisition of the property, but the workers need to know that the government doesn’t owe them a cent. We are the ones who are fighting to raise the financing to pay the severance,” Browne said during his budget presentation.

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