Benn issues ultimatum

Minister of Transport and Hydraulics, Robeson Benn yesterday issued an ultimatum to striking air traffic controllers to immediately return to their jobs or be considered voluntarily separated but at press time last night the workers were refusing to budge until outstanding wage and other issues are addressed.

The minister at a press conference yesterday said if the workers do not turn up for their scheduled hours of work then it would be considered that they “voluntarily separated themselves from the Guyana Civil Aviation Authority (GCAA).” Several night flights have had to be cancelled since Saturday when the controllers went on strike.

Robeson Benn
Robeson Benn

A check with the Director of the GCAA, Zulfikar Mohammed last evening revealed that none of the controllers had returned to work and the airport was closed at 4 pm with all night flights cancelled. Mohammed said while the area control centre would have opened at midnight last night the control tower would have remained closed until this morning.

Minister Benn described the strike as “illegal” since the workers are contracted workers and there is no agreement between the GCAA and any union with respect to representation.

“We therefore view in the circumstances in which we are and the way in which it was done that we have a situation where workers have walked off the job…” the minister said.

Benn yesterday said that should the workers not return to work Guyana will only have daytime flights as there would not be enough staff to operate the tower during the night.

Meanwhile, President of the Guyana Public Service Union (GPSU), Patrick Yarde, at a press conference yesterday dismissed Benn’s threat to fire the workers stating that there is no question of them being fired since there are 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 hopes when President Bharrat Jagdeo returns to Guyana tomorrow there would be a “resuscitation of sanity in dealing with this matter.”

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

Yarde said while the union does not have a collective labour agreement representing the workers, the civil aviation department and the air traffic staff came out of the public service and “we have a certificate of recognition for them.” He said that it is a technicality that Benn is raising and that he was not going to give it any credence.

And according to Yarde the workers are not contract employees, describing them as former public servants with guaranteed conditions no less favourable than other workers and that his union has a pension plan for them.  And he said even if they were contract workers it does not prevent them from being members of the union and that there is a clause in the Constitution that says if there is any conflict with the contract then the contract becomes null and void.

And the Guyana Association of Air Traffic Control Officers (GAATCO), yesterday said that the issues of their salaries dates back to 2002 when they were made a semi-autonomous agency under conditions “no less favourable” than those previously enjoyed. As a result if salary increases were issued annually, it should continue at the same rate, the association charged.
‘National asset’

“I want to call on the employees of the Guyana Civil Aviation Authority, the air traffic controllers specifically, to turn out to work today [yesterday]…” the minister urged. He stated that if they did not then the GCAA would issue letters of dismissals and decide “how, when and who.”

The minister admitted that should the workers not return to work then only day flights can land in Guyana even though they would still have to rely on some of the employees to return to work.

“The airport is a significant national asset, it is significant to the economy of this country but we will have to work ourselves over the next year or so to resolve all the issues with regard to having the right type of air traffic controllers with the type of commitment that is required to our country…” The minister did not rule out seeking external assistance.

He admitted that over the past years they have been losing persons and the training has not “kept apace with the loss of trained persons but we are taking steps to set that right over the next two years.”

As a result of the strike the training course has been put on hold since the trainers have also proceeded on strike.  According to the minister the trainees are supporting the senior employees who are directing flight operations, pointing out that it is not true as was previously reported that only one person is in the tower at a time.

However, sources yesterday noted that this is a dangerous development as should something happen to the trained person then aircraft would be left at the mercy of someone who does not even have a licence, endangering the lives of people.

The controllers said up to late last night they had not received any letters from the GCAA instructing them to return to work.

And Chairman of the Private Sector Commission and Chairman of Roraima Airways, Captain Gerry Gouveia yesterday described the strike by the workers as having serious implications for Guyana and he called on them to do the responsible thing and return to work.

Gouveia, who is also a member of the Aircraft Owners’ Association, said that while the association did not meet to address the issue he was taking a keen look at the matter and he feels that there is an urgent need for the workers to go back to work.

He said while he understands that the workers are protesting important issues as it regards their employment, he feels that they should put the well-being of the country first while noting that their actions also affect the lives of people.

He said he does not believe that striking should be an option for the workers whom he said should demonstrate a higher level of “social responsibility.”

He called on the workers to demonstrate a level of commitment to their profession while suggesting that they need to sit down with someone and find a way of examining their outstanding issues. Gouveia said he does not view the issue as an economic one but rather as a safety issue noting that the consequences and danger of the workers’ strike actions are unspeakable. He noted that Guyana’s airspace does not have radars like those in other countries and as such aircraft depended on those in the tower to separate the traffic.

“They have a professional responsibility not to leave the tower unmanned,” Gouveia said.

But some workers yesterday dismissed the claim of them being irresponsible noting that the issues have been pending for years and they tried all the available avenues before going on strike.  They said that it is the GCAA and Benn who are endangering the lives of persons.

Meanwhile, Minister Benn also took issue with reports in the press which he described as untrue. The minister also pointed out that the air traffic controllers in the past complained that the building was dilapidated, they could not get water, the toilets were not working and that it was noisy and uncomfortable. However, there have been improvements, he said.

“I myself went there when I became minister and I was very concerned about the condition of the air traffic control tower and I always said to the management that the tower is their most critical and valuable asset and that it had to be maintained in such a way that the employees are comfortable, that they have focus, that they are relaxed and that we had to rehabilitate the tower itself to what it used to be some years ago when it was constructed,” the minister said.

The minister acknowledged that the condition of the tower was still not acceptable.

Benn said from time to time issues with respect to wages and salaries for the workers have been raised and according to him it appears that since there was a separation of the GCAA from the ministry in 2002, making it a semi-autonomous body, that “at various times we are being held to ransom with respect to wages and salaries.”

“The fact is that if they had remained in the ministry as ministry employees… their salaries and wages would have been one third of what they are today,” the minister said.

Last year, the minister said, monies equating to three years retroactive pay, was paid to workers as a “lump sum” as the workers felt that since increases were made to public servants over the three- year period then they are also entitled to those increases.

Permanent Secretary of the ministry, Balraj Balram, revealed that had the workers been still employed within the ministry they would have earned between $67,000 and $100,000 per month depending on their seniority but presently they make between $155,000 and $310,000.

But the GAATCO said all they are asking for is to be paid the increases which they were entitled to and had traditionally been paid after becoming semi-autonomous.

According to Benn in a semi-autonomous body there must be an ability to pay and the fact of the matter is the GCAA does not have the ability to pay the monies that are being demanded by the workers most of whom he said are being “misled.”

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

However, according to GAATCO, the government had taken a US$30M loan to reform the aviation sector. It said that the monies, according to their 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 they are questioning where the money has gone.

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 that 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. Benn yesterday said the works are necessary to make the environment more work conducive.
Last year when there was no response to a letter written to the minister the employees wrote to President Jagdeo who instructed Head of the Presidential Secretariat, Dr Roger Luncheon to meet them. The sources said they had several meetings with Dr Luncheon but late last year they stopped hearing from him and a scheduled meeting did not materialise.

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