Lebanon: central bank employees suspend strike

Beirut (AFP) –


Employees of Lebanon's central bank Tuesday said they were suspending a strike that has crippled the country's stock exchange and alarmed officials.

Central bank employees launched the strike on Saturday to protest feared cuts to their benefits as part of a new austerity package being studied by cabinet ahead of this year's budget

The Beirut Stock Exchange said Monday it had been forced to halt trading "until further notice" as it could not clear and settle trades because of the strike.

On Tuesday, Abbas Awada, the head of the syndicate of central bank employees, said they were suspending the strike for three days.

The decision stemmed from "a sense of responsibility towards society and the Lebanese economy", he said, while noting that the suspension could be lifted.

"The assembly will convene next Friday morning to... decide on whether to continue the open-ended strike or to cancel it," he said, quoted by the state-run NNA news agency.

The suspension came one day after central bank governor Riad Salame demanded an end to the strike due to its impact on the economy and financial transactions, according to a statement from the syndicate.

On Tuesday, central bank employees received assurances from Salame that their wages and benefits would not be effected by austerity measures, Awada said.

Lebanon has vowed to slash public spending to unlock $11 billion worth of aid pledged by international donors at an April 2018 conference in Paris.

Last month, Prime Minister Saad Hariri vowed to introduce "the most austere budget in Lebanon's history" to combat the country's bulging fiscal deficit, sparking fears among public sector employees that their salaries may be cut.

In recent days, protests have also handicapped Beirut Port and the National Social Security Fund.

On Monday evening, President Michel Aoun convened a meeting with Hariri and parliament speaker Nabih Berri.

"Everybody knows there's an economic crisis," Hariri said after the meeting, according to a statement from the presidency.

"It has to be managed through austerity and reforms, without targeting one side over another."

Information Minister Jamal Jarrah said reports of wage cuts for public sector employees stemmed from "leaks" and "rumours".

"The leaked information," he said, is "incomplete, and misleads public opinion".

Lebanon is one of the world's most indebted countries, with public debt estimated at 141 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) in 2018, according to credit ratings agency Moody's.