The industrial impasse between terminated LIAT pilots and the Antigua and Barbuda government took a disturbing twist at the weekend with Prime Minister Gaston Browne targeting the Barbadian flyers as “rotten elements” who contributed to the collapse of the St John’s-based airline.
During an interview on his popular Browne and Browne radio show on Pointe FM 99.1, the prime minister went so far as to warn that the Bajan pilots were unlikely to get another cockpit job anywhere because of their persistence in fighting his shareholder government in the law courts in order to recoup some $5 million in pension they say was “unlawfully” taken from their pay packets.
Just over a week ago, dismissed Barbadian Captain Neil Cave filed a class action suit in the Antigua and Barbuda High Court on behalf of nine other terminated pilots of varying Caribbean nationalities including an Antiguan, asking that the country’s recently-amended Companies Act be declared unconstitutional.
That law enacted by the Parliament last year, prohibits anyone from suing the government in St John’s over any claim against LIAT.
The day following publication by Barbados TODAY of the lodging of the constitutional motion by the 10 disgruntled pilots, six more of their colleagues came forward to join in the legal battle.
But in a strident commentary, the Antiguan Prime Minister told his radio audience on Saturday afternoon “How do you resolve the issue by berating a government that is trying to assist and by taking it to court…It makes no sense.
“But you know, you see those very pilots, especially the ones in Barbados. I am told they are some rotten elements and one of the reasons too why LIAT collapsed is not so much because of COVID you know, it is because of the behavior of the rotten elements within LIAT who refused to cooperate with the government to recapitalize the company and to streamline operations so that they could be more efficient and ensure the sustainability and viability of LIAT. So after those rotten elements mash up the company, they come to make trouble again. But as the saying goes, they better [come good] because we coming hard.”
While back peddling on a recent threat to pull his government’s support from LIAT if the pilots pursued their court action, Browne is now issuing a different warning to them.
“I haven’t given up. We do not quit. I am not a quitter. My government does not quit any initiative that it is pursuing. We will just have to find some other way to leave them rotten elements behind. In fact, if they continue to pursue us, then we may have to review our offer and to structure it in such a way that they don’t get a cent…at least from the Antiguan government,” he declared.
While pointing out that each shareholder government is financially obligated to pay the severance of their nationals according to the level of its shares, he again chided the Barbadians for trying to thwart his administration’s efforts at establishing a compassionate pay out arrangement.
“It is our obligation. LIAT is a limited liability company and the extent of the governments’ liability is limited to shares…that’s well known. But again, we decided in the circumstances, we would want to assist those displaced workers and here you have some rotten elements out of Barbados trying to railroad the whole process,” Browne contended.
Describing the pilots’ legal action as unreasonable, the Antigua and Barbuda political leader questioned the likelihood of them finding another flying job or even getting good references for future employment with any airline in or out of the region.
“They don’t recognize they are doing themselves a disservice. With that kind of behaviour…such an unreasonable behaviour. Which airline within the region or perhaps beyond they think would employ them? Where are they going to get a sensible reference going forward. They are not thinking about the long-term effects of what they are doing…the type of unreasonable demands,” he stated.
Browne then sought to justify the enactment of the contentious amendment to the country’s Companies Act which is being challenged by the pilots as unconstitutional.
“In the United States they have bankruptcy protection for individual companies. This isn’t anything new. The law that we have introduced here is practised in many other countries. What you do here is give the company breathing space from predators as you seek to restructure it. And here is a situation where they are not allowing us any breathing space.
“If you are going to force the issue and engineer a precipitous liquidation then you have to suffer the consequences; you can’t expect benevolence coming from my government when you are being destructive,” insisted the Antiguan leader.
Browne reiterated his government’s proposal to consider paying at least 50 per cent of severance owed by LIAT even though he claims “we have no legal obligation so to do. In fact we have indicated it would be a compassionate payment”.
But he argued that the pilots’ litigation was disruptive, very unfortunate and was aimed at undermining his efforts at salvaging the airline.
He said the pilots were hurting themselves through their legal action, and warned that if LIAT were forced into liquidation, the maximum the pilots would receive was five per cent of what is due to them.
But the Barbadian senior pilot who is leading the class action suit against the government has shot back in a robust response to Browne’s assertions.
Captain Cave told Barbados TODAY that the prime minister’s decision to single out the Barbadian pilots as rotten and disruptive goes back to years of ill-treatment and victimization of the local pilots by Antigua and Barbuda officials.
To re-enforce his point that the Bajans were being targeted, he explained that the 10 pilots who form the list of litigants in the class action suit are from a variety of Caribbean countries including Antigua.
But of greatest concern to him is what he considers a veiled threat against the pilots’ future ability to find work in their chosen field, should they seek references from LIAT or the Gaston Browne administration.
“What he has done, was basically threatened some of those younger pilots from here that when they go forward…in other words, ‘if you pursue court action against me, you would not have a good name in the regional aviation society’…and I am of the opinion that this is something that really needs to be taken up by our government,” the former LIAT pilot suggested.
“Where am I supposed to go? You take up $5 million that belongs to us. I don’t believe you should be able to take my property and just walk away from it because you have the power to do so and I don’t have any avenue or anywhere to go. The only place that we could go is the courts,” he insisted.
Captain Cave added: “When you have a prime minister saying you have taken court action against my government…when we have offered to settle the dispute over and over again from the very beginning; and you are now leveling threats, calling me and calling the people that following me disruptive and rotten because we are trying to have our day in court.”
However, he said what Prime Minister Browne was not addressing was the treatment of Bajans in the company over the years.
“I have presented documents to government already pertaining to the details of all the cases involving Bajans over the years. The same rhetoric that he is spitting out there…this is how Bajans have been treated for years. You have a particular Bajan that gets into trouble with the company. He is fired without a hearing by the company…and then you have an Antiguan that is in the same situation or maybe even a little worse than the Barbadian, and he was severed to the tune EC$700,000,” Captain Cave told Barbados TODAY.
He said he has concrete examples to prove his point. He said those cases are currently before the courts.
“It’s not only my case. Those cases also cannot be heard…and in fact, I have received funding to drive the litigation from a few different corners. You could say those cases are also impacted. So this is the kind of despicable thing and you are going to get up now and call people rotten elements because we have gone to the only place where we can get redress which is the court,” the ex-pilot stated.
Speaking on behalf of the disaffected pilots, Captain Cave re-emphasized that he will not be backing down despite Prime Minister Browne’s pronouncements.