LIAT’s former Barbados-based employees deserve much better than the treatment being meted out to them.
These workers have moved Caribbean people and goods across the region for decades, providing a most valuable service. LIAT, in all its iterations, has been owned and operated by Caribbean governments. Islands that have refused to put a penny to help run the carrier, continued to benefit from the vital airlift it provided.
The COVID-19 pandemic has certainly been responsible, in large part, for the grounding of airlines across the world for almost a year. Even those airlines that continued to operate, did so at great expense, as passengers were far fewer than the carrying capacity.
When Prime Ministers Mia Mottley and Ralph Gonsalves of Barbados and St Vincent and the Grenadines, respectively, took the bold decision to no longer carry the burden of financing the loss-making carrier, we were not surprised.
It was foolhardy to think that after the latest blow dealt by COVID-19 to the airline industry, that a long-struggling carrier like LIAT would have the wherewithal to resume flights, as though it was Emirates, departing from Dubai.
Taxpayers of this country are yet to be told how much of their money has been sunk into LIAT over the years.
There has been no public disclosure of the auditors’ reports on LIAT’s annual financial statements. We assume, naively or otherwise, that audited financial reports have been produced and are situated in a filing cabinet somewhere between St John’s and Bridgetown, waiting to be revealed to the people of the shareholder countries.
When LIAT was grounded by the pandemic last year, most reasonable observers would have expected layoffs and even permanent job losses at the Antigua-headquartered carrier, were inevitable.
What has occurred, however, should be an embarrassment for our Governments, as indirect employers of these workers who are scattered across the Caribbean.
It is nothing short of shameful that former pilots, cabin crew and ground staff have been driven to abandon all pride and take their financial plight and suffering to social media platforms.
A pilot’s licence is not something you acquire as you do to ride a motorcycle or drive a car. These are people who have spent years training for the positions they held. They have maintained a near flawless safety record, which is commendable.
This must count for something. There is certainly no abundance of pilot positions available in the Caribbean that these specialist workers could seamlessly transition, when LIAT placed them on the breadline with hardly any or no financial buffer.
As a result, it is even more incumbent that these workers receive all that was due to them including outstanding wages, now that the airline has severed them.
This is not to imply that these former LIAT pilots should be afforded special treatment at the expense of the other former employees. But merely to emphasise the nature of their problems, due to their specialised occupation. Indeed, all former LIAT employees must be afforded fair and just treatment.
It is a disgrace that these former LIAT employees are forced to seek handouts because the entity for whom they worked failed to pay them their due.
The fact that their de facto employer was a grouping of regional Governments, makes the situation even more condemnable.
In a decision that only the Antigua Government can explain, it decided to carry the burden of LIAT alone. The Government there undertook legislative changes to eliminate the financial exposure it faced, having taken control of LIAT.
Those amendments to that country’s Companies Act seek to insulate the Government from some claims. A group of former pilots, mostly Barbadians, have filed a constitutional motion challenging the law and seeking relief from the courts.
Having challenged the constitutionality of the law, the pilots are now on the receiving end of a verbal attack by Prime Minister Gaston Browne.
If reported accurately by regional media houses, the latest verbal onslaught is most unbecoming of the leader of a country that ostensibly respects the rule of law and the rights of workers.
“You see those very pilots, especially those in Barbados, I’m told that they are some rotten elements, and one of the reasons why LIAT collapsed is not so much because of COVID you know, it’s because of the behaviour of them rotten elements within LIAT,” Browne reportedly said Saturday on an Antigua radio programme.
“So, after those rotten elements done mash up the company, they coming to make trouble again. But as the saying goes, ‘they better wet their hands and wait for us because we coming hard,’” Browne added.
Caribbean people are no snowflakes. We are accustomed to robust language from our politicians, especially on political platforms. But we also know where to draw the line with divisive, unproductive rhetoric.
This is such a moment when we need to push back and say to Prime Minister Browne, you have crossed the line. These workers are entitled to defend their rights and the legal system must be allowed to work, unimpeded by politics.
Moreover, we call for CARICOM heads to condemn Browne’s statement and on sober reflection, Mr Browne should offer an unreserved apology to the Barbadian workers.