Prime Minister 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 and says 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.
“Pushing our government to pay EC$60 million (One EC dollar+US$0.37 cents) in cash is beyond the means of our government. It is, therefore, an exercise in futility,” Browne told Observer Radio here.
Earlier, President of the Leeward Islands Airline Pilots Association (LIALPA), Patterson Thompson had called for the meeting 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 for severance.
In a letter to his members, Thompson acknowledged receiving official correspondence from the Cabinet Secretary detailing the government’s position on the compassionate payout.
“This correspondence has omitted most of the key points discussed with the Prime Minister in the October 8th 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 adding “we have responded to the correspondence and have requested a meeting to discuss the discrepancies”
He said LIAPA intends to call a general meeting next week, but no date has yet been confirmed.
But Prime Minister Browne told radio listeners that while he had during a meeting with LIALPA, indicated his willingness to pay 50 per cent of the full staff liabilities, Cabinet decided against his recommendation and capped it at 50 per cent of the severance.
“LIAT evidently was a private liability company. The company does not have the 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.
‘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” and also an offering “to purchase all the assets of LIAT (1974 Ltd) by the government of Antigua and Barbuda estimated to value about EC$10 million (One EC dollar=US$0.37 cents)”.
The Cabinet statement said that this “amount could be paid before Christmas for distribution to all the severed employees of LIAT throughout the system.
“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 airline is owned by the governments of Antigua and Barbuda, Barbados, Dominica and St Vincent and the Grenadines (SVG). Last year, Browne said that a decision had been taken that would allow Barbados and SVG to turn over their shares in LIAT to Antigua & Barbuda for one EC dollar.
In the November 19 letter to the LIAPA president, Secretary to the Cabinet, Konata Lee, acknowledged that Cabinet had discussed the outstanding severance estimated at EC$120,000,000.
She said that while the government does not accept any legal liability for severance arising out of LIAT 1974 Ltd, it is “prepared to make a compassionate payment of up to 50 per cent of the severance liability”.
But Thompson said he was extremely disappointed and confused by the letter, saying it excluded critical information discussed between the government and LIALPA on October 8.
He said the government also pledged to be flexible with the combinations of the payout, but since then the goal post has been changing.
“We want them to stick to their words because they keep changing the goal post. 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. If you keep moving the goal post, you are feeding the sceptics and the people who believe you are not genuine, and putting pressure on the unions to convince the people you are genuine,” Thompson stated.
He said if the union does not get a favourable response to its request for a meeting, LIALPA will present what it has to its membership and ask each individual to make their own decision.
“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, adding “getting 636 people from Guyana to St. Kitts to agree on one proposal is impossible especially if you keep moving the goal post. It is not going to work”