BEIRUT: Hundreds of Bank Employees Union members staged a sit-in outside the Saifi headquarters of the Association of Lebanese Banks Friday afternoon in the latest escalation of their campaign to renew the collective labor contract.
The document had governed working conditions in the sector for decades until it expired in 2009.
The Central Bank and the Labor Ministry have been mediating new contract negotiations between the syndicate and ABL over benefits for the estimated 9,000 members of the union for the past three years, but have yet to resolve issues over health care, working hours, and annual compensation increases.
Union President Assad B. al-Khoury told The Daily Star at the protest site there were six principal contract demands that bank employees refused to budge on, the most important of which concern post-retirement health care coverage for employees and an increase in school and university tuition benefits, which have been frozen at LL2,750,000 since the old agreement lapsed.
The union is also insisting that the new labor contract maintain the traditional provision of paying bank employees a 16-month annual salary, meaning every three months they receive double their monthly wage. In a statement released before the protest, the President of the Federation of Bank Employees’ Unions George Hajj referred to the 16-month annual salary as “the only privilege bank employees still enjoy.”
Furthermore, the union wants the new contract to mandate a 3-percent annual salary increase for all members; a one-time 25 percent raise for employees earning over LL1.5 million; and for employees to receive either overtime or salary increases to compensate for the longer work day since banking hours were extended from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. Though most banks have paid employees for longer working hours, Khoury said he would reveal the names of a handful who have not done so in due time.
“We are ready to take legal measures to solve these problems,” he added.
Many of the more than 100 mid-to-lower-level bank employees who turned out for the protest listed the same chief grievances as Khoury. Ali al-Ghoul, a self-described “office boy” at BIT Bank, whose 200 employees are all union members, agreed that increasing the tuition allowance to LL4.5 million is primary concern of the sector’s workers, with health care for retirees coming in a close second.
Charbel Sakr, a branch manager at Gulf International B.S.C. bank, cited the 16-month annual salary and the tuition increase as priorities in negotiations with the ABL. “The lowest school tuition in Lebanon is LL6 million,” Sakr said. “But they won’t accept adjusting the school allowance.”
Salaries have also not been adjusted on a yearly basis for inflation since the previous labor contract expired, he said. Sakr added that unionized banking employees would continue to escalate their protests until their demands were met, while ABL’s negotiating position appeared equally intransigent.
The former president of ABL, François Bassil, issued a statement shortly before the sit-in began Friday, urging bank employees “not to play with fire” and to “exercise self-restraint for the benefit of all parties.”
“I am sorry that the employees are holding a sit-in although we [banks] gave them all their rights,” Bassil said.
“There is no need for these actions because it will accomplish nothing. I am confident that ABL and the association of employees will eventually reach an understanding.”