Air traffic controllers’ strike…
– Minister Benn warns striking workers
The Air Traffic Controllers’ strike action, now in its fifth day at the Cheddi Jagan International Airport, Timehri (CJIA), has been described as illegal by Minister of Public Works and Transport, Robeson Benn.
Yesterday, Minister Benn disclosed that alternative plans will be put in place if the workers failed to resume their operation by late yesterday. But there could be fallout, according to the Minister.
He said that Guyana could be forced into a position that would only allow for daytime landings and takeoffs, which could be adequately controlled without the 15 controllers who have taken strike action.
He, however, expressed optimism that some of the workers would be responsible and return to work and not try to continue in what he considered an “indefensible position”.
“I am aware that there are some disruptions with respect to flights coming in at the moment but we will readjust ourselves if it is needful.”
According to the Minister, the airport is a significant national asset and notably aids the economy of this country. He add that efforts will be made over the next year to resolve all issues with regards to having the right type of air traffic controllers with the type of commitment that is required.
Reports are that the workers were mobilised to engage the industrial move, by a union which claims to represents them, for a number of reasons including the need for an increased remuneration package.
But according to the Minister, yesterday, since the employees of the Guyana Civil Aviation Authority (GCAA) are contracted employees, there is no recognition agreement between the GCAA and any union with respect to representation.
“We therefore view the circumstances in which we are and the way in which it was done that workers have walked off the job. We have issued letters to the individual workers where we are identifying that since they have not turned out to work, and if they do not turn out to work today (yesterday), they would have voluntarily separated themselves from the GCCA.”
According to the Minister, he is perturbed by the way the matter has been highlighted in the media, adding that there were instances where information had no basis or foundation as it relates to the situation at the CJIA.
He said that some of the issues being outlined as the grounds for the strike action could have been easily put to rest by the GCAA or through the intervention of the Public Works Ministry.
“Even if the media had reviewed their historical reporting with respect to matters at the (control) tower they would have seen what the air traffic controllers themselves complained about at various times. There were complaints that the tower was decrepit, that conditions were bad, that they couldn’t get water, that the toilets were not working, that it was noisy and uncomfortable.”
“I myself went there since I became Minister and I was very concerned about the condition of the Air Traffic Control Tower and I have 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 are focused, that they are relaxed and that we had to rehabilitate the Tower to what it used to be some years ago when it was constructed.”
According to the Minister, anyone who had observed the deterioration of the Tower would have been cognisant of the fact that repairs would cost an astronomical amount even as it was evident that the conditions were not conducive for having proper work carried out.
“The Government of Guyana bent over backwards and sequestered $660M to have within a year or so the procurement and installation of urgently needed capital equipment, distance measuring equipment, high frequency radios, a host of other things which we spent a lot of time developing the documents and the right and transparent procedures for obtaining them.”
“The cost of the equipment in as far as we know right now is over $780M. The GCAA has to transfer from its current surplus, which somehow people feel belongs to them, to make its contribution to this capital programme. Under normal circumstances, if it was bringing enough money to deal with the capital programme, it would have had to be using its own money to fund it.”
In effect, Minister Benn established that GCAA is a subvention agency thus it relies for all of its issues in totality on Government’s subventions.
And in addressing the issue of wages and salaries of the striking workers, the Minister disclosed that there have been issues raised in this regard on a number of occasions.
“It appears to us that since there has been a separation of what is now termed the Civil Aviation Authority employees to Air Traffic Controllers from 2002 that we are at various times being held to ransom with respect to wages and salaries.”
But according to the Minister, the fact is that if they had remained as Ministry employees on GS8 or GS9 salary scales their wages and salaries would have been one-third of what they are today.
In addition, the Minister noted that last year a position was taken at Governmental level following similar industrial circumstances that monies would be paid to the employees as a lump-sum, which would have equated to three years’ retroactive payment.
He explained that there was a complaint made by the workers that they were not afforded an increase as was received in the public service.
“I myself resisted this situation because I figured that they were already being well taken care of and that they were taking an approach to an issue which went beyond the rationale for setting up the GCCA.”
And while it is factual that efforts would have been made to improve workers’ wages and salaries, the Minister pointed out that the fundamental issues in relation to capital improvements, improvements in working condition, improvements in other areas would have to be addressed by what then became in 2002 a semi-autonomous agency.
“You cannot have a situation where you want the best of what the traditional public service has or could receive and on the other end wanting the very best and carrying it to the extreme for what you may be able to wring out of a situation as a semi-autonomous agency.”
According to the Minister, in a semi-autonomous agency there has to be an ability to pay. He pointed out that the fact of the matter is that the GCAA does not have the ability to pay the monies that is being demanded by the employees, adding that most of them are perhaps being misled.
The Minister said that he is therefore calling on all of the striking workers to return to work, adding that based on the workers’ response appropriate action will be taken.
“We will decide how, when and whom but we cannot have a situation where we will be squeezed by our pendulums in this matter. We think they are very well taken care of…,” the Minister asserted.
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