Dozens of workers at the American University in Cairo (AUC) protested on Sunday against university management, issuing a statement signed by 170 cleaning staff declaring a 48-hour strike over salaries and the renewal of their contracts.
The statement, distributed at Cairo University, claimed management did not uphold its promise to extend initial one-year contracts to three years if workers performed adequately, and did not deliver on a promised annual raise.
They also criticized the reluctance of management to issue promotions, which they say contradicts a previous agreement with the independent workers’ syndicate.
Founder of the independent syndicate for AUC workers, Walid Shebl, said that on February 20, 2011, AUC President Lisa Anderson promised that all workers contracts would be guaranteed for three years, after an initial trial period. However, in the last few months, many workers have been issued six month and one-year contracts.
Shebl added that the independent syndicate has tried to communicate with the university’s management in the last few months, but that there has been no adequate response.
The University’s Legal Consultant, Karim Abdel Latif, said AUC has the right to renew contracts for whatever periods it deems appropriate, even if this contradicts with the initial agreement, Shebl explained.
The workers warned that if their requests were not met, they would commence an open strike on campus. The university consequently hired two external companies to clean the campus until the strike ends tomorrow at 4 pm.
Shebl told Mada Masr that this is not the first time the university has broken promises to its workers. In October 2012, management cut salaries by half, prompting a strike and demands for the minimum wage of LE1200, and LE200 food allowance, in addition to a two-day weekend, instead of one. Workers also demanded an annual raise.
“Most requests were not met at the time, but university management increased salaries to LE1100, including food allowance, admitting a breakdown in communication and agreeing to meet with workers’ representatives. However, after a while we realized nothing had changed, so we went back to striking,” Shebl said.
Workers did succeed in obtaining equal working hours with the rest of the university employees and their salaries were later raised to LE1400, including a monthly food allowance.
Some faculty members stood by the workers, most notably Hanan al-Sabei, head of the Sociology Department. Sabei told Mada Masr that “since 2011, management has been talking about a budget deficit, and using it to entirely restructure the university, which affects everyone, not just the cleaning staff.”
Sabei explained that the university has also “decreased the number of scholarships, frozen the library budget for books, and issued a hiring freeze on staff, relying instead on temporary contractors. All this reflects a vision for the university that is different from the way in which an academic institution should be run,” she added.
This is not the first strike the university has witnessed this school year. In October, workers at the South Tahrir Farm in Beheira, a research centre owned by the university, denounced a decision to discontinue the rental contract, issued in 1979, and return the farm to the Egyptian government. There were no moves made to compensate workers at the time, although following the strike promises were made to do so.
A recent decision to close the Zamalek dormitories this summer was also issued by management, citing lack of capacity, and forcing faculty members housed there to look for alternative accommodation.
“The problem is not the deficit itself, but the way management is dealing with it,” Sabei claimed. “They are using university resources to fix the problem and disregarding the rights of employees.”