Prime Minister of Antigua and Barbuda Gaston Browne has urged former employees of the cash-strapped regional airline LIAT (1974) to accept his administration’s compassionate offer while accusing their representative, the Antigua and Barbuda Workers Union (ABWU) of engaging in politics.
“The union . . . continues to play politics, they are driven by the politics, and they well know that the government does not owe the staff of LIAT and what they need to do now is to put some pressure on the union to accept the 32 per cent,” said Browne who was speaking on his weekly radio programme.
The Antigua and Barbuda government had initially offered the workers a 50 per cent compassionate payment, but more than 90 per cent of the workers rejected the offer.
Browne, who is finance minister, has in the past reiterated his position that regional governments “have a moral obligation” to treat with the issue of severance payment to former employees even as two shareholder governments have paid their nationals.
Barbados has joined St Lucia in announcing a payment scheme for the LIAT workers in their respective islands, but Browne has said that his administration was no longer prepared to meet bilaterally with local trade unions to discuss the issue and that efforts should be made to include the other shareholder governments of the airline.
The former LIAT workers, including pilots, have been demanding the millions of dollars (One EC dollar=US$0.37 cents) owed in severance and other benefits.
In 2021, the Antigua and Barbuda government offered two million EC dollars to partially satisfy the cash component of the compassionate payout to former LIAT workers here.
The major shareholders of the Antigua-based airline, which entered into administration in July 2020 following increased debt and the impact of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, are Antigua and Barbuda, Barbados, Dominica and St Vincent and the Grenadines.
Last October, the President of the Dominica-based Waterfront and Allied Workers Union (WAWU), Donald Rolle, said that the regional unions were united in seeking the millions of dollars owed to the workers and have rejected the latest offer from the shareholder governments.
“The offer on the table which is to pay the LIAT workers 50 per cent of their redundancy pay, and there is a component that involves compensation by issuing of lands and bonds. But the unions around the Caribbean have sort of rejected that in its entirety, but we are in negotiations with the governments. We have a position, and as it is now, we are at opposite ends of the table,” Rolle said.
Browne told radio listeners that the compassionate offer made by his government to the workers would not remain on the table indefinitely.
“I always say, and I am repeating it, we reserve the right to change our position. So if, for example, a month from now, we decide, hey, we are not paying nothing, we reserve that right. I am not saying we are doing it, but we deserve that right, and nobody should see it as a harsh decision.
“If we offer you 32 per cent . . . and this would have happened about a year and a half, how long are we going to hold out on this offer? As a Prime Minister, myself and my team . . . have a governance responsibility to the entire nation, not to a group of people called LIAT workers or former workers.
“And again, I say this with no ill will towards the LIAT workers, the present one and those out of work, especially those out of work, but to place this issue into proper context so that they could realise what is at stake,” Browne said.
In the past, the ABWU has said while it is not rejecting the offer, it needed to remind Prime Minister Browne that his administration will not have the final say regarding the severance payment.