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A restructuring will jeopardize the retirement savings that Laiki employees have built up over their careers, making them arguably the biggest losers of all in Cyprus’s unfolding disaster. (YORGOS KARAHALIS/REUTERS)
A restructuring will jeopardize the retirement savings that Laiki employees have built up over their careers, making them arguably the biggest losers of all in Cyprus’s unfolding disaster. (YORGOS KARAHALIS/REUTERS)

Banking Crisis

In Cyprus, a career in banking goes bust Add to ...

Anastasia Neocleous attended two funerals on Saturday – one for the mother of a friend and another for her employer of the past 23 years, Laiki Bank, and the life it had given her.

With the sudden news on Friday that Laiki, Cyprus’s second-largest bank, was set to be liquidated as part of an international bailout, Ms. Neocleous and thousands of other bank workers massed in front of their union office in downtown Nicosia to commiserate.

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Most expect to be fired this week. Their deposits will be subject to the “haircuts” Cyprus’s international lenders are demanding in exchange for a bailout. Worst of all, a restructuring will jeopardize the retirement savings that Laiki employees have built up over their careers, making them arguably the biggest losers of all in Cyprus’s unfolding disaster.

“It’s the money we deposited for so many years,” Ms. Neocleous, 47, said, as she wondered how she would find other work in a financial sector that is rapidly collapsing and how she and her husband would pay for their two children’s university fees.

“With 2,000 employees being fired, there’s no chance of finding a job in Cyprus. These people won’t have any chance,” she said. “We don’t know what’s going to happen to us.”

The pain of Laiki’s workers could soon be felt more widely; some are now advocating a strike on Tuesday, an event that could upset plans to reopen a banking system that has been closed for more than a week.

In a sign of the government’s concern, officials tried on Sunday to cobble together a “solidarity” levy to help compensate Laiki workers for lost retirement savings – although its fate remained unclear.

Like other elements of the Cyprus crisis, Laiki’s collapse has been stunningly quick. As recently as Thursday, a rescue plan was in the works and employees believed they were safe. “We expected it to be approved, and then we got this,” said Cleri Koni, a 28-year Laiki veteran who is in charge of personnel. “I don’t know what happened.”

Like Ms. Neocleous, the majority of Laiki’s 2,300 employees were between the ages of 40 and 50, many saddled with tuition fees and aging parents, according to Ms. Koni.

Their march on the presidential palace on Saturday afternoon lacked the tear gas and firebombs of central Athens. Instead, participants sported designer sunglasses and handbags as they proceeded in orderly – even courteous – fashion. Ms. Neocleous and her husband had arrived for the event in a BMW sport utility vehicle.

In a brutal twist, fired Laiki workers could end up owing the bank or some successor millions of euros, since they were not only employees but also customers. Their debts to Laiki for home, car, school and other loans total about €275-million ($360-million), according to Ms. Koni.

Meanwhile, their own retirement savings were locked up at Laiki in a single pooled fund. The chief fear is that plans to wind down the bank would result in the €290-million fund being dumped into a “bad bank” – making it uncertain what, if anything, the workers will ever recover.

Ms. Neocleous had built up more than €180,000 in retirement savings. But her web of losses extends far beyond that: Her husband Christos, a lawyer, had money deposited at Laiki. Comforted by her presence, her extended family also put their money there. Her father-in-law moved his entire retirement savings to the bank and then invested in what seemed like low-risk securities, which may now be converted to shares.

“These are simple people, not business people,” Ms. Neocleou said.

This is not the first time Cyprus’s turbulent modern history has intruded on her life. When she was nine years old, her family was forced to flee – first to Iraq and later Greece – after her father lost his job in the upheaval that followed Turkey’s invasion of the island in 1974.

Like many Cypriots of her generation, she became the first member of her family to earn a college degree. After collecting a masters in the United Kingdom, she and her husband decided to return to an island whose post-invasion economy had been reborn through the offshore financial business.

Her husband worked as a lawyer at a firm serving offshore clients – some Russian. Meanwhile, she took a job at Laiki, and with a loan from the bank, they built a house in Limassol.

“Everybody in Cyprus had a dream: to build a house of their own and provide good studies for their children,” Ms. Neocleous said.

That dream appeared to die last week, with Laiki heading toward collapse and Mr. Neocleous fielding orders from worried clients to pull their money out of Cyprus.

Her children were now facing their own exile, said Ms. Neocleous – this time not because of a military disaster but a financial one. “In Cyprus,” she said, “they won’t have a chance.”

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