There are times when one has to take a stand even when it is quite clear that the outcome will likely offend those close to you.
It is against this backdrop that we draw attention to the ongoing debacle involving the payments due to Barbados workers of LIAT, the regional air carrier that is preparing to resume flights across the region after being grounded for almost eight months.
The airline, from which its majority shareholders – the Governments of Barbados and St Vincent and the Grenadines and Dominica to a lesser extent, agreed earlier this year to withdraw support from after years of hundreds of millions of taxpayers’ dollars have gone into the beleaguered airline. The majority of that funding, by the way, came from the coffers of the Barbados treasury.
Prime Ministers Mia Mottley and Dr Ralph Gonsalves determined that putting more money into the bottomless hole that LIAT had become, was not worth it, at a time when their economies were already reeling from unsustainably high debt.
The argument that keeping LIAT in the skies represented an enormous public good, has run its course and found wanting.
The decision by Mottley and Gonsalves to call it quits, came after much complaining and name calling across the Caribbean Sea from the leader of Antigua and Barbuda where the carrier is based and where the bulk of workers are employed.
It was most interesting that on October 16 the airline’s Instagram page featured
this message: “Today we celebrate 64 years of serving the Caribbean. The last few months have been very turbulent for us and with the state of aviation, the LIAT family have been through a lot.
“We thank our employees, past and present that have shaped the legacy of our LIAT . . . . We are working behind the scenes to return to the Caribbean skies to bring back that familiar feeling that says ‘Love Is Always There. Happy Anniversary.”
Under normal circumstances, we would have been happy to celebrate the milestone with the airline that has moved millions of passengers across the region. It has brought us joy in reuniting Caribbean people with friends and families, but it has also been the source of much anguish with frequent delays, cancelled flights and lost luggage.
It is difficult at this time to muster the goodwill which the airline requires from the Barbadian travelling public particularly when scores of Bajan LIAT workers are in dire straits today, unable to meet even their most basic needs because the airline has not paid them for months and it is unclear if or when they might receive severance from the St Johns, Antigua headquarters.
We listened yesterday with horror as Acting General Secretary of the National Union of Public Workers (NUPW) Ms. Delcia Burke lament the plight of pilots and other cabin crew, and of former Barbadian employees forced to sell assets, including jewellery, cars and even land in order to purchase food, service utilities and just simply get by.
How in all good conscience could the airline be planning a triumphant return to the skies when so many of its former workers, whom it acknowledges “shaped the legacy” on which it is rebuilding, are finding it difficult to put food on their plates or keep a roof over their families’ heads?
We are still uncertain how much clout the NUPW has in this fight but we salute the union’s efforts to provide representation to these workers who seem to be getting little support from the Antiguan Government.
Despite the difficulties faced by every nation in the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), we call on the Antiguan Government to do the right thing by all the former employees of LIAT, including the Barbadians.
The Barbados Government has given some partial benefits to the workers who are based here, but it cannot suffice and is certainly no replacement for what the workers are entitled to including unpaid salaries and severance payments.
The Antigua Government, It would appear, speaks to the near EC $100 million LIAT debt owed to creditors and one would hope that the debt owed to these employees is made a priority.
It was no comfort to learn from news reports that Prime Minister Browne said persons owed severance and other terminal payments needed to understand that everything possible would be done to pay them, but that based on the poor financial shape of LIAT, these payments would not likely exceed 10 per cent of the sums due.
That cannot be good news for former LIAT workers and we urge the Prime Minister who fought to have LIAT remain in Antigua to develop a plan that included full or near full payment of payments owed to these suffering workers.