CAIRO: Around 150 ambulance drivers from the Land and River Specialized Ambulance Center began a strike and sit-in outside the center’s Cairo headquarters Wednesday evening, demanding better work conditions.
Driver Hamada El-Khatib told Daily News Egypt that bosses have not acknowledged their “heroic efforts during the Israeli attack on Gaza, when ambulance drivers ferried injured Palestinians to and from the Rafah Crossing for medical treatment.
“We were originally 10 ambulances, which increased to 35 during the assault on Gaza. We couldn t keep up…we were working for 48 hours at a time, 800 km, three hours to get there, three hours back and then we set out again, El-Khatib said.
“We received continuous orders, which we implemented. We were sleeping standing up. When we complained that we were exhausted and needed a break the choice was either receiving a LE 300 deduction or leaving the job.
They said whoever isn t happy with the [working arrangement] can leave, El-Khatib continued.
Drivers allege that bosses have the right to dismiss drivers without providing reasons.
Under the terms of their contracts – a copy of which was given to Daily News Egypt – drivers who quit their employment before three years have elapsed are obliged to pay back the costs of the training received.
All of the drivers have been at the Ambulance Center for no more than a year as this is when the center opened.
Drivers are calling for a number of changes.
“There s no health insurance, no social insurance; we have nothing to identify us as ambulance drivers apart from our uniforms; we have nowhere to sit when we re not in the ambulances, and we re not allowed to leave the center, Refaat Ibrahim Mohamed explained.
“I might be apart from my kids for a week. I have the right to take two days holiday after this but I only get one day, Mohamed continued.
El-Katib alleges that drivers only receive 12 hour breaks after working continuously for 10 days in Al-Arish and Suez.
Mohamed added that many drivers spend up to three hours of this break traveling back to their homes outside Cairo in governorates such as Daqahleya and Gharbeya.
In addition to health and social insurance, drivers are demanding an indoors rest area where they can change into their uniforms.
They allege that currently they are forced to change in the ambulance parking area and do not have anywhere to rest in between ambulance trips.
Drivers are paid hourly – LE 40 for the first eight hours and an additional LE 20 for the four extra hours worked during their 12-hour shifts.
They say that after tax and other deductions, they take home LE 1,400 and do not receive any kind of allowance or incentive payments.
Their contract provides for incentive payments and bonuses for “extraordinary efforts whose payment is subject to unspecified conditions put in place by the “authority concerned.
The drivers allegation that they have not been paid for 55 days was dismissed as untrue by Mohamed Sultan, head of the central administration of critical care.
“They re paid between the 15th and 18th of each month. The check was received yesterday by the financial administration. There are of course administrative procedures which have to be completed which take approximately 10 days, but last month they were paid on the 17th, Sultan said.
“Drivers are entitled to one day off a week, and if a driver isn t able to take it, he is paid overtime.
Daily News Egypt asked Sultan why the drivers do not have any union representation.
“A union? No . they re drivers, and not permanent employees. Under the law we re not obliged to give them a union, he responded.
Concerning the issue of health insurance, Sultan says that a clause in drivers employment contracts allows them to apply for health insurance, and that some drivers have in fact submitted applications.
Sultan says that in any case all drivers will receive health insurance on July 1, 2009, when “funds will be available.
He alleges that drivers are refusing to negotiate with the Ambulance Center s administration, refusing to congregate in the Ambulance Center s meeting hall for negotiations.
“We tell them that we agree to their demands, but they say ‘what guarantees do we have that you ll keep your promise?’ But these are things which aren t written down. We don t know what to do with them.
Drivers responded to this by saying that Sultan had failed to honor his promises to uphold their demands on several previous occasions. They added that none of these promises were put in writing.
“The only reason they want us to go to the meeting hall is so they can separate us, El-Khatib added.