Air traffic controllers mull next move

Weeks after they had returned to work following a promise by President Bharrat Jagdeo to meet them, air traffic controllers (ATCs) are yet to hear from him and are mulling their next move.

The ATCs returned to work on February 5, almost one week after they had downed tools at the control tower, which had resulted in the airport’s operations being confined to daylight hours only.

Their industrial action had earned them letters of dismal, following Transport Minister Robeson Benn’s ultimatum issued on February 4, that they return to work or be fired, which they had ignored.

When President Jagdeo returned to the country the next day, February 5, he told the ATCs, through a representative who met him at the airport, that should they return to work by 2 pm that day, the dismissal letters would no longer take effect. The President had told the media that same day that he promised to meet the workers in “a week’s time”.

Yesterday, a source close to the workers said they had heard nothing from the President since that day and numerous attempts to make contact with him or anyone close to him have been futile. The ATCs, who are said to be disappointed and upset, plan to have a meeting with the Guyana Public Service Union (GPSU) in an effort to work out a way forward.

Stabroek News was told that they hope they would be supported should they be forced to take further action as they did not want the Guyanese people to think they wanted to hold the government or the head of state to ransom. They pointed out that they have tried everything and have gone to the bargaining table on several occasions.

High on the ATCs’ list of demands is a 10% retroactive payment, but President Jagdeo had said he made no promise of payment to the workers when he told them to go back to work
President Jagdeo had told reporters at a press conference that he was not sure the public understood the difficulty the government has had in the sector, mentioning that it had to find $700 million to improve the facilities at the airport so that the ATCs could have a better and safer work environment.

He had repeated the arguments made earlier by Benn and Prime Minister Samuel Hinds that the ATCs are much better taken care of than other public servants. ATCs 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 had said.

“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 had said.
Prior to the President’s move Benn had said that the government “bent over backward” and sequestered $660 million to procure and install urgently needed equipment which included distance measuring equipment and a high frequency radio among other items. He said the cost of the equipment was $780 million and the Guyana Civil Aviation Authority (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) had argued that the 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.

Stabroek News is still trying to ascertain what happened to that money and several attempts to get answers from Benn have proved futile. On one occasion he said he was not prepared to speak on the issue as yet and on another, he told the reporter to do some research to find out where the money went.

ATCs 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.

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

They cited 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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