by Gemma Handy
Hundreds of former workers at one of the country’s largest resorts still owe more than EC $ 7 million in unpaid wages and severance pay almost two years after the 464-room resort closed.
The Jolly Beach Resort was once a favorite spot for budget travelers wanting to experience Antigua’s famous west coast. It has been closed to guests since March 2020 after the Covid pandemic exacerbated financial difficulties that had seen it undergo a series of transfers.
The Workers’ Union (ABWU), which represents the 500 former hotel workers, wrote to Prime Minister Gaston Browne on Monday to request a meeting to iron out a resolution.
The complex is currently in receivership and alone should the government and statutory bodies the astronomical sum of EC $ 80 million.
It was used for several months last year as a government quarantine center; today, its neglected and overgrown beach is a painful reminder of its disgrace.
ABWU Deputy General Secretary Chester Hughes said yesterday that although the case has gone to court and an order has been made for payment of the funds, they have yet to be received.
He told Observer that frustrated former employees – many of whom had worked at the resort for decades – were still awaiting compensation.
At least two have since died.
Esther Parker, who had worked there for 20 years, died last February when she owed around EC $ 60,000.
Her daughter Gisel Meade told Observer that she believes stress played a major role in her mother’s death. Parker, 51, had suffered a number of health complications, including liver problems, and died in hospital during surgery, Meade said.
“She left behind two young children aged nine and ten. It has been a horrible year for us. We are trying to fight because her husband also worked at Jolly Beach. He had been there for 18 or 19 years, so they were both out of work at the same time, ”she explained.
Meade added that receiving the money from his mother would help his younger siblings to some extent in Parker’s absence.
Hughes told Observer that the union hoped the government “would step in and help the process.”
“The government said it was a shareholder because it bought the complex through a debt swap, but nothing has materialized yet,” he said.
“We haven’t heard anything further so we’re looking at where we’re headed with some sort of settlement.
“We are talking about hundreds of workers who did not receive a dime of the money they worked for.
“When the hotel closed, employees owed millions of dollars in retroactive payments, vacation pay, severance pay, unpaid wages and pension contributions that were deducted from wages and withheld from the bank.
“This is unacceptable and we cannot continue to drag this out without government intervention.”
Hughes said that in addition to the EC $ 7 million, the total amount owed is now considerably higher due to interest placed on the debt by last year’s court ruling, as well as termination interest of 10 % per year provided for by the Labor Code.
Prime Minister Browne’s chief of staff, Lionel Hurst, said there was “no doubt” the country’s leader would meet with workers’ representatives.
He said the resort is currently valued at significantly less than its total debt. The amount owed to the government, like unpaid medical benefits and social security contributions, is almost three times the roughly EC $ 30 million the property could sell for, Hurst said.
“There have been several attempts to resuscitate Jolly Beach using private capital. Several private companies have made openings, but it is extremely difficult to say if a company has come so close that we will follow that one, ”he explained.
“The government is the station’s biggest debtor and these are secured debts, so they will take priority over other creditors, including workers,” he continued.
“We have started to turn debt into shareholders so that the government becomes the biggest shareholder. We want this to be a profitable business, ”added Hurst, explaining that the hope is that working capital from new investors will help resuscitate the complex and get it back into commercial service.
ABWU is also currently fighting for the corner of 150 former employees of ground handling company Caribbean Airport Services (CAS).
LIAT 1974, currently under administration, owns 51 percent of CAS with the remainder owned by a Barbados-based company.
“These workers have been at home since the pandemic and have not received a dime,” said Hughes, adding that the government should take responsibility for former CAS workers in light of its takeover of LIAT.
Hurst said the latter was the responsibility of the LIAT administrator.