Mon | Nov 29, 2021

Former LIAT employees told ‘take it or leave it’ over severance pay

Published:Wednesday | November 24, 2021 | 12:05 AM
Regional carrier LIAT is under liquidation and a new airline is being contemplated by the government of Antigua.
Regional carrier LIAT is under liquidation and a new airline is being contemplated by the government of Antigua.
Prime Minister of Antigua & Barbuda, Gaston Browne.
Prime Minister of Antigua & Barbuda, Gaston Browne.

Prime Minister of Antigua & Barbuda Gaston Browne has told former employees of the cash-strapped regional airline, LIAT, that they have a choice to either accept or reject the compassionate settlement his administration has offered to them, saying he sees no reasons for further talks on the matter.

“We do not need to meet with them to determine the amount of the compassionate payment. This is not a matter for negotiation. They have one of two choices; accept or reject the offer. At the end of the day the government of Antigua and Barbuda has no legal liability to the staff of LIAT,” Browne said while speaking with the local Observer Radio station.

“Pushing our government to pay EC$60 million in cash is beyond the means of our government. It is therefore an exercise in futility,” he said.

LIAT is owned by Antigua, Dominica and St Vincent & the Grenadines, but at one time was held by 11 government shareholders. The failed airline is being restructured by Antigua, with a view to its takeover and relaunch. Last year, Browne said that there was an agreement for Barbados and St Vincent to turn over their shares in LIAT to Antigua for EC$1.

Earlier, Patterson Thompson, the president of the Leeward Islands Airline Pilots Association, LIAPA, had called for a meeting with the government to clarify what he said were concerns relating to the various offers that have been placed on the table regarding severance pay.

In a letter to LIAPA members, Thompson acknowledged receiving official correspondence from the Cabinet Secretary detailing the government’s position on the compassionate pay.

“This correspondence has omitted most of the key points discussed with the prime minister in the October 8 meeting. The executive would like also to dispel any notion that any agreement was made in this meeting with the Hon Prime Minister Gaston Browne,” Thompson said in his note to his members. “We have responded to the correspondence and have requested a meeting to discuss the discrepancies.”

Browne told radio listeners that while he had indicated his willingness to pay 50 per cent of the full staff liabilities during a meeting with LIAPA, Cabinet decided against his recommendation and capped it at 50 per cent of the EC$120-million severance payment.

“LIAT evidently was a private liability company. The company does not have resources to make those payments and the government has stepped in to make a compassionate [offer]. If you look at it as a percentage of the shares we owned in LIAT, which was about 32 to 34 per cent, and for anyone to ask us to go above the 50 per cent offer under severance I think it would be an unreasonable request,” he said.

“We are trying to bring some relief to them by doing the sale and lease back assets and it is really entirely up to them. They can walk away from the offer or they can accept it,” he said.

A statement issued following last week’s Cabinet meeting had noted that “the offer then was to pay 50 per cent of severance, a non-recourse offer” by Christmas.

“However, it must form a part of the entire agreement with LIAPA and all unions, and the sum is to be deducted from all payments to be made in the proposed settlement,” the statement said, adding that settlement will include one third in cash, one third in bonds and one third in lands.

“All LIAT unions must agree to the 50 per cent severance for the offer to take effect,” the Cabinet statement noted.

The statement also spoke of an offer by Antigua to purchase all the assets of LIAT 1974 Limited “estimated to value about EC$10 million”.

Thompson, while referencing correspondence dated November 19 from Cabinet Secretary Konata Lee regarding the proffer for “up to 50 per cent” compassionate pay, said it excluded critical information discussed between the government and LIAPA on October 8.

The LIAPA president said the Antigua government had also pledged to be flexible with the combinations of the payout, but since then the goalpost has been changing.

“We want them to stick to their word because they keep changing the goalpost. There were two letters from Minister Lennox Weston talking about old entitlements. The prime minister has gone on his radio station to talk about old entitlements,” he said.

LIAPA will be advising members to make their own decisions whether to accept or reject the offer at an upcoming meeting.

“I will tell them this is what it is and each of you will make your own individual decision on this. That’s what will happen,” he said.

But: “Getting 636 people from Guyana to St Kitts to agree on one proposal is impossible, especially if you keep moving the goalpost. It is not going to work,” Thompson said.