By Constantinos Psillides
A PROTEST by some 200 Cyprus Airways (CY) employees outside the finance ministry on Monday was marred by violence, after Finance Minister Harris Georgiades refused to come out and receive a resolution personally.
A group of particularly hot-headed employees tried to storm the ministry in central Nicosia, which was protected by police officers. Four women and a news cameraman found themselves in the middle of the scuffle and sustained minor injuries.
The four women fainted while the cameraman, ANT1’s Michalis Kapetanios, was hit in the back of his leg.
The employees also cut off traffic by blocking neighbouring roads for about an hour, causing a traffic jam.
The disgruntled employees left the finance ministry at around 2.00pm, announcing a new protest for Tuesday at noon, outside the presidential palace. The employees pledged that they would organise a protest every day until all their issues are resolved.
The employees demand that all unemployed staff are hired by a new carrier and that a probe is carried out into the reasons that lead to the company’s demise. Communications Minister Marios Demetriades said on Friday that the state is looking into setting up a new company, privately owned. The minister admitted that the initiative is still in its early stages and that an advisor will be hired next month to come up with an action plan.
The finance minister issued a statement late on Monday promising that the cabinet of ministers, meeting on Wednesday, would look into ways of setting up a new airline bearing the Cyprus Airways name and logo that the state bought from the failing carrier last month for €1.2 million.
Cyprus Airways closed down on Friday, after 67 years of operation, following a decision by the European Commission that deemed over €100 million in state aid as illegal, and demanding that the company returns €66 million. The company was deemed unviable and had its flying licence revoked, leading to the immediate end to operations. It was reported that 560 CY employees would be let go. In a press conference on Friday the minister promised that the employees would receive full benefits, including provident fund.
Holding signs that read “You threw us in unemployment” and “Where’s our national carrier?”, the employees gathered outside the finance ministry. Many broke down in tears, claiming that they had no one to turn to.
“We implore the president to hear our plight. We are left on the street at age 45. What are we going to do? Our families are left with nothing,” a woman wailed at the cameras, while another employee lamented that he would not be able to cope with his piling debt.
SYNYKA SEK union boss Vangelis Mappourides said that the death of Cyprus airways was predetermined, calling all other employees to side with the CY staff.
“Today it’s us, tomorrow it will be other organisations. We need you to stand behind us. We need to be here everyday and show our indignation. Cyprus Airways was like a home to us but these people respect nothing. They closed the company down overnight,” Mappourides said.
The employees also drafted a resolution, demanding a full investigation into the company’s management along with assurances that would receive full benefits and a written commitment that the state will secure employment for the CY staff at the new company. Georgiades addressed this issue at his Friday press conference, saying that the state cannot force a private company to hire anyone. The minister had rushed to add, however, that it would make perfect sense for a company to hire experienced personnel.
When the CY employees demanded that the minister came down himself to receive their resolution, Georgiades responded he would be glad to meet with their representatives but would not come down personally. The minister’s response immediately angered the crowd which clashed with police guarding the ministry’s front entrance.
Commenting on the ensuing violence, the union boss replied, “the voice of the people is the voice of God”. He added that their reaction was fully justified since they were faced with obligations they could no longer handle.
PEO union boss Antonis Antoniou said that closing down Cyprus Airways was a crime against the workers and the economy.
Former CY chairman Tony Antoniou was also among the protesters. Cyprus News Agency (CNA) reported that Antoniou criticised the government for “lack of willingness to save the airline”. Antoniou laid the blame with the state aid given to the ailing airline by the previous administration but added that the government should have done more in terms of securing a strategic investor.
Antoniou resigned his post on August 23 last year, following an investigation into various decisions to commission construction work and supplies without following due tender procedure. Though he claimed that circumventing proper procedure was necessitated by the airline’s dire financial state, which called for urgent cost-saving actions, a subsequent investigation by the finance ministry’s permanent secretary deemed such rule-bending “unjustified”. The investigation did conclude, however, that there had been “absolutely no indication” that Antoniou had ever intended to misappropriate funds.
Pilots’ union (PASYPI) Petros Souppouris was also present, stating that the government failed to piece together an adequate restructuring plan over the last year and that “they were more concerned with the capital and companies than the employees.” Souppouris accused the government of undermining Cyprus Airways to promote the interest of another company.
While the PASYPI boss didn’t mention the airline, the pilots have been attacking the communications minister in recent weeks over his alleged relationship with Aegean Airlines, a Greece-based airline. The pilots claimed that the minister used to work for a company whose CEO is part of the Aegean board of directors. The minister has rejected these allegations.
President Nicos Anastasiades issued a statement on Cyprus Airways early on Monday evening. The president expressed his sorrow for the turn of events, arguing that the government had done everything in its power to avoid shutting down CY.
“What we are concerned with now is securing that all employees receive full benefits. Meanwhile, the state will focus its power into creating a new airline, working with the private sector, and will do anything in our power to ensure that most of the CY employees are hired by the new company,” said the president.