The bank employees union Etyk on Monday called on bank workers to strike over a proposal by Hellenic Bank to make half of its staff redundant as a former finance minister was blamed for the problems.

The union will hold regional meetings on May 18 where they will vote on whether or not to go on strike. General Secretary of Etyk Christos Konomis said Hellenic was using “extortion and threats” for an “easy solution” rather than using the usual measured, correct and dignified procedures.

Speaking to CyBC radio, Konomis referred to “well-known political circles who are exerting influence” in support of the bank’s unorthodox procedures.

Pressed to give further detail, he mentioned former finance minister Harris Georgiades.

Georgiades later said he was glad he had been personally named so he was given the opportunity to defend himself.

Asked whether he truly had such a long reach, he denied allegations of influence and called talk of circles of influence “suspicions” which contradicted reality.

Georgiades, who was minister from 2013 to 2019 said during this time the banking system was thoroughly worked on with the cutting of deposits and the closure of banks, due to the financial crisis and working with the troika.

During this time, he said, not a single bank worker was fired or told they were surplus to requirements.

“It is inconceivable,” he said “to suggest that the government or myself personally had a hand in a private bank”.

Konomis said if banks wanted to get rid of staff they must do so through voluntary retirement.

In an ongoing manoeuvre to reduce operating costs Hellenic Bank, Cyprus’ second-largest commercial bank, is seeking to reduce its staffing by 300-350 people.

In March Hellenic CEO Oliver Gatzke sent letters to labour unions Peo, Sek, and Etyk, informing them of the bank’s intentions, in response to which the bank workers union called on staff to resist the mass redundancy plan.

The union went as far as suggesting that cultural differences were at play, calling Gatzke, a German national, “a foreigner with a different philosophy.”

Speaking at a press conference to announce the bank’s 2021 results, Gatzke had said that the bank has put other problematic practices on the table, including the automatic indexation of wages, employer’s contribution to Etyk’s health fund, and pay rises.

“Salaries cannot rise at a rate of 5 per cent a year given that the bank has not paid out a dividend since 2013,” he said.

Gatzke had earlier pointed out that banks are closing branches and investing in digital transformation, a result of which is excess staffing.

“Banking is changing, and Cyprus is five years behind the rest of Europe in terms of banking services,” he added.

In response to these claims, Etyk has accused Hellenic’s management of failing to acknowledge that Hellenic Bank has the lowest cost per employee, a cost 20 per cent lower than other banks.

“While it is clear that the management of Hellenic Bank is unable to increase its revenues, especially compared to the competition, the management of the bank, instead of concentrating its efforts in this direction, continues with the easy solution of dismissals,” Etyk said.

Etyk accused Gatzke of behaving contemptuously, ignoring ministry of labour proposals and not complying with ministry decisions.

“But the ministry of labour itself must rise to the occasion and stop coddling Hellenic Bank and finally proceed with the criminal proceedings,” Etyk stressed.