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Hellenic must not let the banking union dictate terms

Hellenic Bank

Hellenic Bank was closed yesterday because of a 24-hour strike called by union Etyk protesting the transfer of 130 members of staff to another company in which the bank would be a shareholder. The union insists that the 130 workers should go to the new company – APS Debt Servicing Ltd – which specialises in handling bad debts, on secondment, rather than as its employees. It also claims the bank agreed to this demand, then subsequently changed its mind.

As usual, Etyk, which has been accustomed to dictating its terms to the banks for decades, is engaging in some traditional muscle-flexing in a clear attempt to show Hellenic who is in control. The bank has bent over backwards to please the union, perhaps not realising this would be construed as a show of weakness for Etyk to fully exploit. It said all Hellenic employees who went to APS would be guaranteed exactly the same employment terms they enjoyed at the bank, and that if after two years of service they wanted to leave the bank would re-hire them. Hellenic pledged this in writing. It also offered them low interest loans as well as the opportunity to apply to any early retirement scheme offered by the bank.

The bank gave everything, apart from 10 per cent pay rises, yet the union insists, quite ridiculously, that this “endangers labour rights, agreements and procedures, including jobs”. How anything was endangered by this offer the union failed to say because slogans are not supported by arguments. The truth is that Etyk saw an opportunity to show the bank, which displayed the familiar aversion to confrontation, that it was running the show and seized it. This is what this dispute is about and unless Hellenic’s board shows the desire to put up a fight it will suffer another humiliating defeat by the union. It will not be easy, but it is the only way forward.

As the bank has already signed an agreement to outsource its debt recovery operation to a company with expertise, some of its staff will be made redundant. It could send redundancy letters to 100 members of its staff – APS would be legally obliged to offer them jobs as the outsourcing was the cause of redundancies. Etyk might call a strike, but legally it would have no case as banks, like any business, have the legal right to lay off workers that are surplus to requirements. It should also avoid offering a voluntary retirement scheme to make the point that the union cannot prevent it from exercising its legal rights. The union could call an indefinite strike that would cost the bank a lot of money, but in the end it would give in.

Admittedly, banks try to avoid strikes at any cost, but this cost has been steadily rising and it may have become unaffordable.

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