st maarten news

Judge bans unannounced strikes at Princess Juliana Airport

Princess Juliana Airport in St Maarten

A court on the Caribbean island of Sint Maarten has ruled in favor of the operator of Princess Juliana International Airport (PJIAE) following a recent industrial dispute that left flights canceled and hundreds of passengers stranded.

Action was brought against the Windward Islands Civil Servants Union (WICSU/PSU) after a strike had a negative impact on the airport’s operations on January 15, 2022.

The court ruled that the strike was unlawful, and that other action could have taken place with less severe consequences. The WICSU/PSU must now provide two weeks’ notice prior to any action for the next year, or risk paying a US$100,000 penalty per day. The WICSU/PSU has also been ordered to pay the court costs.

At the heart of the dispute is a claim by the PJIAE air traffic controllers for a 3% cost of living adjustment (COLA) for the years 2018-2020. The operator has said that it can afford to pay only 1% at this time due to financial constraints arising from Hurricane Irma and the Covid-19 pandemic and is asking for a deferment of the remaining 2% to a later date, when finances are healthier.

The total value of the proposed 3% is approximately ANG690,000 (US$385,000) for all PJIAE employees, not just WICSU/PSU members. The airport is proposing a first total payment of approximately ANG230,000 (US$128,000) as of January 2022, with the total balance of approximately ANG460,000 (US$257,000) later.

Brian Mingo, CEO at PJIAE, said, “A combination of the devastation of Hurricane Irma followed by the Covid-19 crisis, which included lockdowns and closure of the airport for up to five months, ended up costing PJIAE more than ANG100m (US$56m) in expenditures to restore the business alone, exposing us to elements and challenges we were certainly not prepared for at that time. The aviation-based organization was left financially weak, but serious measures had to be taken, including the deferring of extra benefits to staff, among others.

“What our team was able to do, with the support and agreement of the unions, was to keep all our employees on board, paying their basic salaries and overtime. We also made a settlement in 2020 of more than ANG3.4m (US$1.9m) to employees for open benefits from 2017, even while the business was hemorrhaging.

“The judge has spoken. Now all parties must reassemble with the mediator to conclude negotiations moving forward. It is crucial that we all work toward the long-term interest of the airport, which can only be rebuilt successfully if we work together. This includes the shareholder, all stakeholders and especially the employees,” he said.

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