By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
Some 40 former Sky Bahamas employees were yesterday said to be hoping for “a speedy” hearing against the failed airline after the Industrial Tribunal set aside five days to hear their $740,000 claim.
Indira Demeritte-Francis, according to a November 2020 directions order seen by Tribune Business, is also permitting every employee to be called as a witness against the carrier which is presently at the centre of a bitter $28m legal dispute launched against its last chief executive, Captain Randy Butler, by its main financier.
Neither Captain Butler nor his attorney were present at the November 2020 hearing, although the 40 former staff are now being represented collectively by Damian Gomez QZ, former minister of state for legal affairs.
Both Mr Gomez and Captain Butler did not respond to Tribune Business calls and messages seeking comment yesterday, although all “skeleton” arguments, witness statements and submissions for the former employees were supposed to have been filed with the Industrial Tribunal by January 8, 2021.
A spokesperson for the ex-Sky Bahamas staff yesterday said they were hoping that a hearing could be scheduled as early as March 2021, branding the airline’s failure to pay a single cent of what was due in termination pay and associated benefits as “a slap in the face” especially for workers who had been with the airline since it launched.
“It’s all in the hands of the Tribunal now,” they said. “All we can do is wait for a date. Naturally we’re hoping that it’s some time in March that we’ll have our next hearing. Not many people are doing well financially.
“It’s really hit them hard, particularly the ones in Grand Bahama and Abaco. All this happened right around Hurricane Dorian, so they were already struggling with that. For Sky Bahamas to fall apart completely right after that, and to never have anything from their employer, it’s rough.
“It’s just sad that they didn’t reach out to those employees; some of them had been with the company since inception. It’s really rough that quite a lot of them are not employed. They’re owed a lot of money, as during their time with Sky Bahamas they were not taking full vacation pay,” the spokesperson continued.
“They loved the work and were loyal to the company. Some of the senior management, the chief pilot and head of marketing, their families had new babies [at the time the airline ceased flying]. It all happened at once. Their income just disappeared. We’re really pushing and hoping the Tribunal makes this a speedy process.”
The Industrial Tribunal’s directions order states that “substituted service is necessary for further proceedings”, which implies that newspaper advertisements will be used to serve notice of the upcoming hearing on Sky Bahamas and Captain Butler if legal papers cannot be given to them via the normal channels.
The employee spokesperson added that the Certificate of Referral has already been altered to include the names of all 40 employees bringing the action as per the Industrial Tribunal’s order.
Sky Bahamas was forced to cease flying last year after the Bahamas Civil Aviation Authority withheld the renewal of its air operator certificate, which was required to carry fee-paying passengers. The regulator said this was because of non-compliance with key regulations, although Captain Butler vehemently disputed this.
The staff are alleging that although Captain Butler informed them in an August 6, 2019, e-mail that the airline ceased operations on July 8, payroll actually started being late or not paid at all as far back as May that year. Nevertheless, the employees continued to report to work up to August 16 without pay, when they arrived at work to find the locks changed and an eviction notice on the door.
Former Sky Bahamas staff are alleging that when they inquired about their employment status last June, they were told to march downtown and put pressure on the Nassau Airport Development Company (NAD), which eventually evicted the airline from its offices for outstanding fees. When asked about their salary, they were told to consult the National Insurance Board (NIB).
Captain Butler, meanwhile, is locked in a fierce legal battle against Sky Bahamas’ main financier, Fred Kaiser, who is pursuing allegations that the former chief executive and the airline had “conspired” to defraud him via $28m in alleged “bogus loans”.
The fight also sparked the resignation of deputy prime minister and minister of finance, K Peter Turnquest, from government office even though the former Sky Bahamas chairman was not named as a defendant by Mr Kaiser. Both Mr Turnquest and Captain Butler have vehemently denied the claims against them.