This afternoon, the Department of Civil Aviation had to activate its emergency mode. That's after a number of air traffic controllers walked off the job to join the union strike.
They're the latest group of public officers to initiate protest actions against the Briceno Administration, but their spontaneous entry into industrial action wasn't initially part of the plan. The best information we've received suggests that 4 air traffic controllers were "written up" for being last to work last Sunday.
The Public Service Union, which represents some of the air traffic controllers, tells the media that their tardiness is being interpreted by the leadership of the Civil Aviation Department, as a deliberate and silent act of protest in support of the joint unions.
So, the PSU staged a protest at the Philip Goldson International Airport, to make it clear to the government that they will stand up on behalf of the 4 air traffic controllers. At midday today, tourists and Belizean travelers at the airport were given front-row seats to the PSU's boisterous and energetic picketing of the Civil Aviation Department.
Our news team was at the PGIA, and we spoke to the PSU reps about this unplanned demonstration against what they are calling an attempt to victimize these 4 public officers. Here's how he explained the sources of this current dispute:
Dean Flowers - 1st VP, PSU "The letters that have been shared with me by the gentleman accuses them of sabotage, it accuses them of negligence and it accuses them of colluding and planning the sabotage of I don't know, perhaps the landing of planes."
Reporter "Is it that the letters suggest that they were trying to follow on cue with some union activity?"
Dean Flowers - 1st VP, PSU "The Public Service Union name was not used in the letters, but the subject of course is negligence in the performance of duties and sabotage. There is a section of the letter that states 'your actions may be considered as negligence in the performance of duties and sabotage respectively as it is allege that these actions were deliberate and coordinated.'"
Reporter "So they are suggesting that or is the implication that they may a silent protest to not show up?"
Dean Flowers - 1st VP, PSU "Yes. As I understand it the gentlemen were late for work on Saturday. They had vehicular problems, as I understand it. There was communication, the letter suggest that the communication to the director and other supervisory individuals were not timely. In any event as with any good department of course there would be a contingency plan in place. All 4 were served with letters of administrative leave letters for 1 week. I understand there is now contemplation and I found this out after visiting the ministry of public service this morning that there is consultation happening there for the immediate suspension for a major misconduct of sabotage being levied upon these gentlemen."
As you heard, the PSU's membership thinks that these 4 air traffic controllers are being unfairly singled out for supposed union support, when they had legitimate reasons for being late to work on Saturday. According to the PSU's 1st Vice President, the staff at the Civil Aviation Department was one of the groups of very essential workers that they did not want to activate as protesters until it was absolutely necessary. Here's how he explained why there should be no uncertainty about the intentions of these public officers who have received what appear to be disciplinary letters:
Dean Flowers - 1st VP, PSU "We want to say categorically that where essential services are concerned this union has acted responsibly. We have spoken to every essential services department such as of course our health services department, the fire department and the civil aviation amongst others and we said to them that we believe we can resolve this matter without engaging them as yet and so I can categorically say that the tardiness that these gentlemen experienced as a result of mechanical failure had absolutely nothing to do with the current impasse that the public service union is experiencing with the government of Belize and for that reason I think that Mr. Carter was out of order and is out of line. We reject that in its entirety and I want to state categorically that in addition to offering moral support to these officers we will offer them legal support as well, because Mr. Carter will have to respond in the supreme court for the accusation of sabotage, even if it is that they want to engage in industrial action. The public service union of Belize as their bargaining agent served the minister of labour adequate notice. We are 37 days today since that notice was served. After 21 days any member of this union was free to engage in industrial action and strike action."
So now, the PSU and a number of other colleagues at the Civil Aviation Department are taking the stance that if you touch one, you touch all. At the change of shift today, they announced that they were going on strike, and simply walked off the job. Here's the PSU spokesperson explaining the importance of that show of solidarity:
Dean Flowers - 1st VP, PSU "This is when we say "touch one, touch all" and I am proud to see that the other members of the authority knowing the good character of their colleagues decided to stand in solidarity with them today as they should, as brothers and sisters in union and I hope that the example being exhibited today by the brothers and sisters in civil aviation will be emulated across this country and in every other unit department and ministry. If you stand together, you will put an end to the intimidation, victimization and the bullying by your immediate supervisors, CEOs, HODs, ministers - whosoever they are. You do not and should not sit idle by and watch the abuse that your co-workers are experiencing, you have the right to defend them in the same manner that you have to the right to defend yourself against such actions. The bulk of the officers from the tower and the radar have decided to stand in solidarity with their colleagues against this witch-hunt by Mr. Carter. Despite our colleagues that have walked off exercising their right of course under the strike action, they have taken the liberty of notifying their regional partners of the situation, but the only authority that can close down the airport or not accept flight would be Mr. Carter and his crew, so as I understand it there are backup staff that are loyalist to Mr. Carter and his supervisory staff, so they have been called in and I trust that they would be equip enough to land planes."
Reporter "Can there be any sort of punitive action against the member of staff who decide to show solidarity with their colleague and to walk off as persons on strike?"
Dean Flowers - 1st VP, PSU "The public service regulation is clear, they can decide to withhold salaries for portion of time that they are not there, but they were covered under our trade dispute and the notice that we served 37 days ago."
Reporter "So their jobs aren't in jeopardy?"
Dean Flowers - 1st VP, PSU "We definitely don't believe they are and as I said if it is that we have to spend a long time in the supreme court and even all the way to the Caribbean Court of Justice, to ensure that justice is served, that no administration could think that they could bully workers of this country, that is what we will do and it starts now."
There's A Back Up Plan
So, the Ministry of the Blue Economy and the Department of Civil Aviation had to activate their contingency plans to ensure that there was no disruption of air traffic, when a number of their air traffic controllers were suddenly unavailable. We don't need to underscore how critical these folks are to air safety - it's the definition of "essential service."
Today, the Minister of the Blue Economy and the Acting Director of Civil Aviation held a ZOOM press conference to make it clear that there was never any air hazard because of the contingency plan in place:
Hon. Andre Perez, Minister of Blue Economy and Civil Aviation "There was an attempt to disrupt air traffic services at the PGIA, I can report that services were not interrupted and flights continue to arrive and depart as scheduled. Our team are fully aware of the impending threat of such actions, as we understand that some of the staff are members or a sympathetic to the calls of the unions. That is their right and their prerogative, but as the ministry of civil aviation it is our responsibility to ensure that these essential services remain uninterrupted and safe."
Nigel Carter, Director, Civil Aviation Department "The air traffic control officers inform that they would be proceeding on strike. At approximately 11:55pm the air traffic control officers from the approach control center inform that they would be proceeding on strike. A few moments afterwards at approximately 12:03 the air nautical management unit informed that they will be proceeding on strike. Several of the staff from the air traffic control tower informed as well that they would be proceeding on strike. What we must commend is the manner in which the air traffic controllers manage the situation, the staff, even though they proceeded on strike, sufficient staff remained in place to ensure that all aircraft that were inside of Belize's air space either landed safely or exited Belizean air space. Therefore, there were no disruption of services in that regard. At approximately 12:36pm we activated our contingency plan. This contingency plan ensured that the Central American Region Control Center would have insured that all enroute air traffic control services would be provided, notwithstanding we had staff at the air traffic control available to ensure that aircraft landed safely at the PGIA. At approximately 12:51pm we had sufficient staff in both the air traffic control approach center as well as the aerodrome control center to ensure that Belize had full control of all its air space. During the event I have to reiterate that there was no threat to safety during the event and there were no delays to any aircraft."
We also asked the Director to discuss the letters to the 4 air traffic controllers, which is the supposed source of this current dispute within his department. He made it clear that he wasn't willing to disclose details at this time:
Reporter "Can you explain to us the nature of the contents of those letters?"
Nigel Carter, Director, Civil Aviation Department "Unfortunately, that is not something we can discuss at the moment. It is an internal matter that we need to clear up within the government of Belize with the public services commission, with the ministry of the public service and the department of aviation."
Reporter "The president of the PSU is calling it a witch-hunt, that is his word choice and the people who walked off today, he says are doing so in solidarity with the 4 that are facing potential sanctions and that is the reason why this spontaneous action was done."
Nigel Carter, Director, Civil Aviation Department "Insofar as the contents of the correspondence, I can't speak to the content, I can assure you that in our opinion what we know about the situation we cannot characterized it as a witch-hunt any at all. First of all the procedure that is being undertaken ensures that, there is no penalties to any persons that has been issued these correspondence and that we move ahead. After the situation is investigated then the appropriate course of action would be taken, but I can assure you that whatever we do is with the interest of ensuring that the highest level of safety is maintained."
Reporter "From the perspective of the PSU, you are trying to hide the reasons for these 4 persons not showing up to work on Saturday as some sort of union activity and that they feel that to be an unfair position. What are your thoughts on that?"
Nigel Carter, Director, Civil Aviation Department "If I were to respond to that, that would be getting into the merits of the ongoing situation. So therefore I would not want to comment to much on that, but in so far as what the public union feels, it's their right to feel as such, that is some level of speculation on their side and they have the right to do as such. We will continue to look at the situation and whenever the situation is investigated, I must reiterate that there are no penalty actions against these persons that the investigation is looking at. We must continue to look at the situation and whenever it is addressed then the appropriate course of action will be taken."
Our records show that there was an Air Traffic Controllers Strike back in 2015. In that case the airport had to be closed to air traffic after Controllers called in sick. In that case, normal operation was restored in a few hours.
It may not have been part of larger strike actions, but today, there was a spontaneous walkout at the Philip Goldson International Airport. Employees there were incensed over management’s decision to place four members of the Civil Aviation Department on leave. Other public officers, wearing their yellow shirts, also showed up to stand in solidarity with four men they say are being unjustly accused of sabotage. News Five’s Duane Moody was on the scene and files this report.
Duane Moody, Reporting
Just before midday today, a group of about twenty air traffic controllers and other employees attached to the Civil Aviation Department at the Philip Goldson International Airport walked off from work. The walkout was in support of four employees who were placed on administrative leave for an alleged act of sabotage after they arrived late to work last Saturday.
Dean Flowers, 1
Vice President, P.S.U.
“We received information that some members of the air traffic control crew – gentlemen working at the tower and the radar room as I understand it – are victims of what I would classify as victimization, witch-hunt and some serious allegations by the Director of Civil Aviation. The letters that have been shared with me by the gentlemen accuses them of sabotage, it accuses them of negligence and it accuses them of planning and colluding the sabotage of I don’t know, perhaps the landing of planes or I really don’t know. I took the liberty to have a phone call with Mr. Carter and he said to me, as far as he is concerned, the actions of the four or five officers were carefully planned, that they colluded, they orchestrated this and that in his eyes, they are guilty of sabotage, negligence and I believe reckless behaviour or something to that effect.”
But P.S.U. Vice President Dean Flowers rejects this, saying that the men had genuinely experienced mechanical issues with their vehicles and it was not a silent protest or strike action taken by the employees. Flowers says that the union has been acting responsibly and there was no need for participation from public officers who provide these kinds of essential services.
“I understand that there is now contemplation and I found this out after visiting the Ministry of Public Service this morning, that there is consultation happening there for the immediate suspension for a major misconduct of sabotage being levelled upon these gentlemen. We want to say categorically that where our essential services are concerned, this union has acted responsibly. We have spoken to every essential services department such as of course our health services department, the fire department and the civil aviation amongst others. And we have said to them that we believe we can resolve this matter without engaging them as yet. So I can categorically say that the tardiness that these gentlemen experienced as a result of mechanical failure had absolutely nothing to do with the current impasse that the Public Service Union is experiencing with the Government of Belize.”
But according to Flowers, it’s been thirty-seven days since G.O.B. was served with a notice of industrial action and the employees – if they choose to – are well within their right to strike.
“After twenty-one days, any member of this union was free to engage in industrial action and strike action. Not because of their own doing, but because of the Minister of Labour and the same irresponsible and negligible Labour Commissioner whose office we had to protest last year simply for her to do her job because they failed to respond to that letter adequately to convene a dispute tribunal to settle this dispute.”
The Public Service Union stands ready to take the matter to court.
“In addition to offering moral support to these officers, we will be offering them legal support as well because Mr. Carter will have to respond in the Supreme Court for the accusation of sabotage against these gentlemen. The sad part about all of this is that the people of Belize may very well be held on the hook for compensation if a court so decides to these gentlemen, whose reputation and good character is being questioned, put on the line and tarnished here today by the leadership of the civil aviation authority.”
Civil Aviation Department Activates Contingency Plan
Even as the employees, including air traffic control crew, abandoned their posts today in protest, they notified regional partners of the situation. However, it is up to the Civil Aviation Department and the ministry to officially call a lockdown of the airport. And they were not having it. According to Minister Andre Perez and Civil Aviation Director Nigel Carter, a contingency plan was established from the notice of industrial action by the unions.
Andre Perez, Minister of Civil Aviation
“There was an attempt to interrupt air traffic services at the P.G.I.A. It is my understanding that some of the air controllers informed the director of their intended walkout providing enough time for our team at the Department of Civil Aviation to activate our contingency plan. I can report that services were not interrupted and flights continued to arrive and depart as scheduled. Our responsibility as a Civil Aviation Department is to ensure that safe and optimum air traffic services are being provided at the Philip Goldson International Airport.”
Nigel Carter, Director, Civil Aviation Department
“What we must commend is the manner in which the air traffic controllers handled the situation. The staff, even though they proceeded on strike, sufficient staff remained in place to ensure that all aircrafts that were inside of Belize’s airspace either landed safely or exited Belizean airspace; therefore there was no disruption in services in that regard.”
According to Carter, the Central American Region Control Center ensured that all en route air traffic control services were provided.
Thanks to the good men and women at the air traffic control tower and the radar room, it’s business as usual at the Phillip Goldson International airport! Responsibility and commitment are highly commendable!!