While workers may have the option of taking legal action, Jeremiah Howard, president of the LIAT Workers Union in St Vincent and the Grenadines said it would be ideal if issues could be rectified in a civil manner.
The shareholders of the regional airline recently announced their intention to place the company in liquidation.
Prime Minister Dr Ralph Gonsalves, the chairman of shareholders also said this week that the company owes at least EC$94 million to workers in severance and vacation pay, which LIAT cannot afford to pay at this time.
“We had a meeting with the management on Monday. They basically just reiterated what the Board basically said. We made some demands basically to get some figures. We want them to do a calculation in terms of which, how much they owe each staff in severance and holiday pay and so forth,” Howard told SEARCHLIGHT on Wednesday.
LIAT workers were sent home earlier this year due to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. Under the Protection of Employment Act of St Vincent and the Grenadines (SVG), if someone is laid off or sent on unpaid leave for six weeks, they should receive severance payment at the end of that period, as it is taken that the individual has been dismissed.
An amendment to this Act however allowed that time to be extended to eight weeks, so as to help with the fallout of the pandemic.
“The thing about it, is starting from today (July 1), the company legally should sever us because they got the eight weeks they were asking for, which ended yesterday (June 30). So legally from today, they are really responsible to rehire us – which they can’t – or sever us, which they can’t either because if they sever us, they have to pay us severance pay,” Howard said.
The president noted that the local workers have reached out to Prime Minister Gonsalves for a meeting and are awaiting a response as to when that meeting can take place.
He also said that the union would like to take the civil route in dealing with the situation.
“Obviously, we have the benefit of litigation, but we don’t want to go that route, we believe we can work things out which is why we want to have a meeting with the prime minister first and then after that meeting, then we will have a better direction as to where we are going,” Howard said.
Gonsalves, speaking to SEARCHLIGHT yesterday, said that under the Antigua Bankruptcy law, government debts take priority while severance payment is third in line.
He reiterated that LIAT does not have the kind of money to make severance payouts. He further noted that it would be difficult to determine who benefits from payouts, especially when monies are also owed to businesses, service providers and persons who have paid for tickets to travel.
Earlier this year, more than EC$2 million was allocated in St Vincent and the Grenadines’ Covid-19 Stimulus package to support LIAT. But the Vincentian prime minister said that Parliament did not anticipate paying severance with those funds.
“I was also talking about providing supports for LIAT, but everybody will have to provide supports. Whatever resources we have there for supports now, we will see what we can do for One Caribbean and SVG Air,” he said, referencing two local carriers that have been tapped to pick up the slack in terms of travel into and out of St Vincent and the Grenadines.
According to regional reports, pilots are threatening legal action if they are not paid severance.
Gaston Browne, the prime minister of Antigua and Barbuda, where LIAT is headquartered is now saying that he is looking toward reorganization, rather than the liquidation of the airline company.
“If the majority shareholding group of LIAT is allowed to opportunistically collapse this regional institution and form a new entity without honoring the institution’s liabilities to creditors; this will be a form of State banditry,” Browne wrote in an open letter which was posted on the Facebook page of the Office of the Prime Minister of Antigua and Barbuda, yesterday.
In his letter, he said “creditors including the staff of LIAT, for decades, provided service and credit to LIAT as an insolvent institution, knowing that they had the backing of the shareholding states”.
“For these states to walk away from their liabilities, is morally reprehensible and perhaps illegal,” Browne wrote.