By Stefanos Evripidou
THE HOUSE Finance Committee held a long session behind closed doors yesterday to discuss the acute problems facing national carrier Cyprus Airways (CY) as airline staff protested outside.
Unions PEO and SEK gathered around 150 CY staff members near parliament, after police closed off the road directly in front of the legislature, to protest against the decision not to provide additional compensation to staff being made redundant.
Protestors carried banners demanding implementation of an agreement reached between unions, the CY board and government on April 12 to provide 490 staff- set to be made redundant- with half of the extra compensation originally demanded, over and above what they will receive from the provident and redundancy funds.
Last week, the new board chairman Antonis Antoniou made it clear that the airline simply didn’t have the €20m to pay the additional compensation agreed, nor the assets to sell off to find the money.
With the airline in a most precarious position, Antoniou said he would still have to go ahead and implement the airline’s redundancy plan, starting with 203 redundancies yesterday and a further 220 by the end of September. It is believed 67 workers have already taken voluntary redundancy.
This would save the airline around €12m in the next six months, he argued.
Stuck between a rock and a hard place, unions called on him not to send out redundancy letters until after they had a chance to meet with President Nicos Anastasiades tomorrow. They did not object to the letters per se, agreeing that they would have retroactive effect, starting from June 17, but wanted to delay their sending out until after the meeting with the president.
When Antoniou received legal advice on Monday that the retroactive application of redundancy letters was dubious, he went ahead and sent out the letters to 203 staff on Monday afternoon.
PEO and SEK called an impromptu demonstration outside parliament yesterday morning in response.
Speaking to the protesters, SEK’s Andreas Pierides yesterday accused ministers of acting as they pleased. He further accused the company of hiring hourly workers just a few days before making permanent staff redundant.
“Where is the Labour Ministry?” he asked.
Pierides called on CY workers to say “no to the executives who were appointed by some to execute the workers” and “yes to social dialogue, social cohesion and preserving Cyprus Airways”.
PEO’s Antonis Neophytou, who later attended the closed session of the House Finance Committee, described the latest developments as part of a “conspiracy”.
He called on workers to remain united. Some of the protesters present booed CY’s chairman Antoniou as he entered parliament, and hounded other MPs walking to the legislature.
One protester expressed her anger with the government’s handling of the situation saying: “Each worker fired at CY represents one family, entering unemployment chaos since we are not going to find a job, and we are talking about families with loans, children studying, and family obligations.”
Asked about the issue of hiring hourly workers, government spokesman Christos Stylianides said yesterday he was not aware of the issue, adding that the government’s current philosophy is that there should be no more recruitments or promotions in the public sector.
Following the finance committee meeting yesterday, attended by Finance Minister Harris Georgiades, Communications Minister Tasos Mitsopoulos, CY management and unions, it became clear that neither the airline nor the government are in a position to offer the unions what they want.
Committee chairman Nicolas Papadopoulos said it appeared the state “misinformed” CY staff since the money does not exist to pay the additional compensation.
According to Papadopoulos, during the session, the government clarified that it never once said the state would pay the extra compensation, the idea being that the company would do so by selling some of its assets.
However, it appeared some seriously “overvalued” the assets, he added.
Based on yesterday’s briefing, Papadopoulos said workers made redundant will receive all legal compensation provided by the law, but not the additional compensation promised.
“The company does not have the money and there are legal problems with the government giving additional compensation,” he said.
No one who came out the committee meeting was able to state publicly that implementation of the redundancy and restructuring plan for CY would guarantee its viability.
“But what we were told is that (redundancies) are a first, important step in improving the financial situation of the company,” said Papadopoulos.