BEIRUT: Bank employees kick-started protests over the weekend with a sit-in in Tripoli to demand the renewal of an expired collective labor agreement that for decades had governed work relations in Lebanon’s vital banking sector. Around 400 bank employees gathered in Tripoli’s Banks’ Street before marching to the sit-in location at the Central Bank’s branch in the city.
“This is the first spark for our protests, which will spread all across Lebanon,” said Maha Mokadam, the head of the Bank Employees Association in north Lebanon.
She said similar protests would be held in the south and the Bekaa Valley.
Georges Hajj, head of the Union of the Bank Employees Association, told The Daily Star last week that the first demonstration in Beirut would take place in the first week of April near the Association of Banks in Lebanon headquarters if banks failed to agree to renew the contract.
Around 9,000 individuals, representing more than half of the sector’s total employment, are members of the association, according to Hajj.
Mokadam said bank employees demanded the renewal of the collective labor agreement to guarantee already established benefits rather than setting new demands.
“We have been patient for three long years. ... The negotiations were the longest in the history of the collective contract,” she said.
She said 18 months of direct negotiations, 15 months of Labor Ministry mediation and another three months of mediation by Central Bank Governor Riad Salameh had all failed to bring the banks’ association to a compromise.
“They wanted to cancel the collective labor agreement and when they could not, they tried to empty it of substance. This is a red line,” she said.
She explained that the Association of Banks in Lebanon tried to press the employees association to drop several articles of the contract, including a yearly merit-based wage increase and four additional monthly salaries.
The banks’ association is also requesting that official working hours from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. be extended or amended for employees of certain departments, Mokadam added.
Mokadam also criticized the banks for revoking health care coverage once an employee retires at the age of 64.
The collective labor agreement, which governs the relationship between Lebanese banks and employees, was first adopted in 1972.
Bank employees receive, in accordance with the collective contract, higher educational and health care allowances than those granted by the labor law and the National Social Security Fund.