Air traffic controllers on the job

–Jagdeo rescinds dismissals, to meet them shortly

Almost a week off the job, striking air traffic controllers returned to work yesterday after a promise by President Bharrat Jagdeo to meet them in “a week’s time”.

High on the workers’ list of demands is a 10% retroactive payment. However, President Jagdeo said he made no promise of payment to the workers, but did guarantee that the letters of dismissal they received late Wednesday night would be rescinded if they returned to work by 2 pm yesterday.

Director of the Guyana Civil Aviation Authority (GCAA), Zulficar Mohammed last night said that the airport has returned to full operations following the workers’ return and from tonight night flights are expected to be resumed after being suspended since Sunday.

The workers had received the letters of dismissal, signed by Mohammed, late Wednesday night after they had failed to heed Minister of Transport and Hydraulics, Robeson Benn’s ultimatum to return to work by 2 pm on Tuesday. Benn had warned that if the workers had not returned to their posts by that time then they should consider themselves voluntarily separated from the GCAA.

One of the workers told Stabroek News that among the things stated in the letter of dismissal was for them to contact the GCAA for their benefits. The source said that none of the workers took the letter “seriously.”

Around five workers, who had reported sick during the strike period, also received letters of dismissal. According to a source they returned to work because President Jagdeo gave his word to “deal with the matter personally”. While the workers are still “tense” and hanging by a “thread”, all of them turned out to work as they do not want anyone to feel they are holding the government or country to ransom. The source said that should they be forced to strike again then they hope the public would understand that they did all they could have done in the circumstances.

Yesterday President Jagdeo told reporters at a press conference that he is not sure the public understands the difficulty the government has had in the sector, mentioning that it had to find $700M to improve the facilities at the airport so that the workers could have a better and safer work environment.

Bharrat Jagdeo
Bharrat Jagdeo

He repeated the same argument by Benn and Prime Minister Samuel Hinds that the workers are much better taken care of than other public servants. Air traffic controllers earn between $155,000 and $310,000 a month.

“Air traffic controllers, their salaries are significantly above many other categories in the public service so I understand that there was a lot of concern about the process that went on but strike action was not warranted in this case especially when there were discussions at different levels,” the President said.

He later revealed that had the workers gone ahead with a plan to picket him when he arrived in the country yesterday they would have indeed been fired since “we had a contingency plan that they didn’t know about”.

The President said on his arrival at the airport yesterday morning he was met by “some who purported to represent the air traffic controllers” and in the presence of Benn he told the persons that if they returned to work then their services would not be terminated.

“When I met them this morning, I didn’t make any promises excepting to say I will meet with you some time in the future,” the President said.

And President Jagdeo had words of praise for Benn, who many have said had a high-handed manner in dealing with issues under his ministry. “Let me make it clear that Minister Robeson Benn is a very valuable member of my cabinet and I think he works very hard…,” the President said yesterday.

Asked whether his comments were in direct response to those made by Guyana Public Service Union (GPSU) President Patrick Yarde, Jagdeo had this to say: “The comments I made is because I have confidence in Minister Benn, I don’t know what Patrick Yarde said about him and I am not interested in what Patrick Yarde has to say about Minister Benn. Minister Benn works for me and I have to be pleased with his performance, not Patrick Yarde.” Yarde at a press conference on Tuesday had dismissed Benn’s threat to fire the workers and stated that there was no question of them being fired since there were more enlightened people within the government “who will deal with this matter in a more responsible manner. Benn is not the leader of this government,” Yarde stressed while adding that he hoped when President Jagdeo returned to Guyana there would be a “resuscitation of sanity in dealing with this matter”.

The union had also called on its members to be in a state of “readiness” to take industrial action in support of the striking workers.

On Tuesday, Benn had said that the government “bent over backward” and sequestered $660 million to procure and install urgently needed equipment which includes distance measuring equipment and a high frequency radio among others. He said the cost of the equipment was $780 million and the GCAA has to transfer from its surplus monies as its contribution towards purchasing the equipment. The minister had pointed out that the GCAA relies on a government subvention to get its work done.

However, the Guyana Association of Air Traffic Control Officers (GAATCO) said government had taken a US$30 million loan to reform the aviation sector and this money, according to its interpretation of the technical report issued in August 2000 by the International Services UK, should have been used during the first five years of operation to replace all the navigational aids and equipment. Seven years down the line this has still not been done and GAATCO is questioning where the money went.

Workers are arguing that they are owed retroactive overtime payment on salary scale adjustments, a 10 per cent increase in wages and salaries for last year and salary and leave advances.

Additionally, workers want management to address the issue of substantive appointments as well as maximum work hours per month for Air Navigation Services staff. The employees are also asking for better training for staff and duty-free concessions for senior staff members.

It was noted that Benn, who had stopped a payment the GCAA was prepared to give employees last year, had said that there was no money to pay them yet the employees are seeing “all kinds of unnecessary expenditure.”

This includes landscaping around the CJIA tower, painting and even covering of floors. “These are being done especially at a time when you are telling employees that you have no money to give them,” sources said.

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