Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves says he will now meet with the Vincentian employees of bankrupt regional carrier LIAT, as he now has something new to say to them: the airline has asked his government for debt forgiveness.
LIAT has been grounded since March as a result of low demand for its services amidst the COVID-19 pandemic and financial problems, including possible liquidation.
Earlier this month, Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves, who was chair of LIAT’s shareholder governments, said he had not met with LIAT workers in St. Vincent and the Grenadines nine weeks after their union sought an appointment with him because he has nothing new to say to them.
But he said last week that such a meeting will now take place, as with the request of debt forgiveness, comes new information including insights into possible payment of severance and other benefits owed to the workers.
Gonsalves told Parliament earlier this month that LIAT owed his government EC$12.2 million in airport service charges, landing and other fees.
At the same time, the government has guaranteed EC$48.7 million on behalf of the airline.
Gonsalves, however, said last week that LIAT owed his government just over EC$14 million in total and that the administrator in liquidation has written to his government asking that the state write off the debt.
“… a request is hereby made for the government of St. Vincent and the Grenadines to write off the full amounts stated which is about 14 and a half million. The effect of the write off of the debt would significantly improve the realisable value which could be derived from the assets of the company and will go a long way towards enabling the company’s return to flying operations,” Gonsalves quoted the letter as saying.
“LIAT’s most recent staff complement, prior to the cessation of flying operations was 667 persons, which is spread across all territories to which the carrier flies. The write off of the debt as stated above, would enhance the employees’ prospects and settling the indebtedness of these employees,” the letter further stated.
“Remember I said that I will do anything to help my friend, Gaston, in getting LIAT up and if any other investors want to go in, but we were in other options,” he said, referring to Antigua and Barbuda Prime Minister Gaston Browne’s effort to keep LIAT alive.
He said that in the letter, the administrator is saying what he has said before: “… let’s see what LIAT in administration has to offer the workers.
“Everybody who hasn’t studied properly wants to advise Ralph. A fella get off the seat of his pants, he has a good meal or doesn’t have a good one, as the case may be, he goes on radio, he goes on social media and he just — no consideration about all sorts of issues which I’ve brought to bear on this matter.
“And when I don’t do it, they say I am loony. Imagine that. Fellas who suppose to own their madness, they say some terrible things about me, you know; really terrible things. But is water off of duck back,” the prime minister said.
“I leave them outside ah the off stump. Ah ain’t raise me bat. I only play shots at balls, which I need to play shots at to score,” Gonsalves further stated, using a cricketing analogy.
He said that by writing off the debt, “I am hopeful that I will put LIAT in a position where they can say something to the workers.
“And I will meet the LIAT workers, now that I have something — a letter from the administrator. Remember I said I had nothing new to tell them? Well, this doesn’t give an answer to their issue, but I have something new to tell them. And I’ll give them information which is here.”
The prime minister said that the letter had requested a response by Sept. 25.
“Now, I had said before if they asked me that I’ll do it. Now that we get it formal, I’ll just have to go to cabinet. Because I don’t run a one-man government,” he said.