CAIRO: The custodial staff and maintenance workers at the American University in Cairo (AUC) staged a sit-in on Wednesday and Thursday after a cut to their paychecks was made this month.
Students and staff rallied together in support of the 650 affected workers in front of the administration building in the New Cairo campus, shouting in outrage. Several students took leading positions in the crowd to organize the angry employees and voiced their demands to members of the administration and workers’ syndicate.
Until Sept. 1, the custodial and maintenance staff of the university was contracted by Compass Egypt. With the start of this school year, however, AUC ended its contractual relationship with Compass Egypt and now hires its workers directly.
According to Osama Ali, the director of environmental services at the office of facilities and operations, the workers received a net monthly salary of LE 650 under Compass Egypt.
The company had also promised them a 5 percent salary increase every year. Their pension plans were the generic ones provided by the Egyptian government, and, according to AUC environmental service officials, the healthcare coverage was not adequate.
“We believe that — from the perspective of our workers — it would be beneficial for the staff to be AUC employees,” said Brian MacDougall, vice president for planning and administration. “The first move was to bring the staff in and then we would plan to make adjustments to those salaries over the course of the next year.”
However, when the paychecks were issued this week, many workers saw a mere LE 300-400.
According to Ali, the AUC provides workers with LE 750 in gross salary, which should amount to LE 650 in take-home pay after deductions are made. These deductions include an optional 7.2 percent of gross salary for AUC’s pension plan. Medical insurance coverage is provided for each individual worker — but not his or her family — and is not part of the deductions. However, if a worker wants to extend coverage to a spouse or other family member, a deduction from the paycheck would occur.
Due to certain complications in incorporating the entire maintenance staff into the AUC payroll, these deductions were not made in September. But this month, the deductions were made twice — for both September and October — leaving the workers with significantly smaller sums in hand.
Ali insisted that all of the workers had to sign a contract with AUC, and that each employee may opt to have pension benefits and extended medical coverage for his or her own family. The 11.8 percent of the pension plan is subsidized by AUC.
At the time of the protest, AUC had not continued Compass Egypt’s prior promise to the workers that they would receive a 5 percent salary increase each year.
MacDougall insisted that that salary increases will be reestablished, but that the rate has not yet been agreed upon by the workers’ syndicate. According to MacDougall, the administration was meeting with workers’ syndicate representatives at the exact moment the protest erupted.
AUC also offered the employees a free meal each day, in addition to benefits and compensation. According to the workers, however, the quality and quantity of food provided at the staff cafeteria was insignificant.
“We get a little bit of rice, pickles, and vegetables,” said one mail carrier. “This is not enough to feed a one-year-old baby. And we work from 6:30 am to 4:00 pm.”
As of Wednesday night, MacDougall issued a response to the workers, saying that the free daily meal would be substituted by an additional LE 200 added to each worker’s net monthly salary. One of the two monthly deductions made to this month’s pay will be returned, but will have to be repaid by the workers within the next 10 months. As of Thursday, it was not clear whether an annual pay raise will be established as part of the salary adjustments.
Administrators at AUC have always confirmed that the salary level of AUC workers match the level of salaries paid to all workers in the market. Yet many argue that it is unfair to compare the workload of an AUC worker with workers at other Egyptian universities, as the quality of work and services AUC workers provide the university’s students often surpasses those of other universities in Cairo.
On Thursday, the workers elected a 10-person committee to voice their demands, as they have not felt that the representation of Magdy Hindawy — the workers’ syndicate director — has been adequate. A meeting with the administration was planned, and an official statement of demands was compiled with the help of AUC’s students. The workers plan to continue striking until an agreement has been reached.
Ali pointed out that as an additional benefit, AUC provides free classes to the workers and their families, both for credited and non-credited education.
The workers’ children can attend AUC for free upon being accepted into any undergraduate program, and spouses are granted free classes in the School of Continuing Education.
However, these latter benefits — while beneficial — are not the primary concern for workers who are struggling to provide for their families and keep food on the dinner table.
The mail carrier interviewed — who preferred to remain anonymous — listed some of his monthly expenses. This week he received LE 350. His wife, who also works on the AUC campus but is paid an hourly wage, makes about the same amount. He has to borrow an additional LE 600 every month to provide for himself, his wife, and their two children. One of their children is in preschool, which costs LE 100 every month. The other is older and receives private tutoring twice per week, which costs LE 150 every two weeks. They pay LE 150 every month for rent, and LE 850 every month for food. They always eat vegetables, and only occasionally buy meat for LE 70 per kg. Gas for their home costs LE 25 each month.
As the atmosphere surrounding the workers’ protests continue to be charged and the results of the negotiations between the workers and the AUC administration remain unclear, the impact of the workers’ strike is growing increasingly visible. Trash is strewn throughout the AUC campus, toilet paper dwindles in the restrooms, and disheveled cleaning carts stand abandoned in the hallways. In front of the administration building, student activists lead the mass of staff, students, and faculty in patriotic songs and periodic chants for justice.