A cleaners’ strike at the American University in Cairo entered its fourth day on Wednesday after the university administration announced it would not renew contracts for 170 cleaners, preferring to lease the services to two cleaning companies.
Ahmed Hashem, the spokesperson for the striking workers, told Mada Masr that approximately 110 cleaners are taking part in the strike which began on Sunday. He said it was initiated after 50 workers tried to meet university President Francis Ricciardone to confirm the news, and he refused to receive them.
According to Hashem they refused university security’s request that they leave the administration building, demanding to be given information regarding the renewal of their contracts. Deputy head of campus services Noel Knillel then told them that AUC was considering contracting two cleaning companies at the New Cairo and Tahrir campuses due to their dissatisfaction with the quality of the current services, telling the cleaners the final decision will be communicated to them by July 23.
A university newsletter published on Monday quoted Knille as saying “operating AUC’s housekeeping and grounds cleaning services through two highly reputable Egyptian companies will provide improved cleaning and longer hours of service at both campuses.”
Brian MacDougall, executive vice president of administration and finance, was also quoted in the newsletter, saying: “since times and conditions have changed, we will contract two reputable companies in the field, providing the modern, high-quality services — at a competitive price and meeting global quality standards — that our students, their families and all who work at AUC deserve and expect,” and described the current services as “unsustainable.”
Hashem pointed out that in 2008 the administration decreased the cleaners’ workforce from approximately 370 workers to the current 170, despite the increase in workload which resulted from the move to the bigger campus that year. He added that one of the prospective companies said the number of workers needed to man the sciences and engineering building is 50, while only 15 workers only are currently cleaning it.
“During the past few years, we were able to save a lot of money for the university,” Hashem said, explaining that private cleaning companies quoted the university LE400, 000 to clean and prepare the campus for the inauguration event of Ricciardone, while university cleaners completed the job for LE100, 000, according to Hashem.
Since the strike began the university has not communicated with the workers, according to Hashem, aside from the human resources which reached out to the workers in an effort to convince them to resign and take a six-week pay severance package.
Hashem described such a settlement as unfair, saying that anything less than two-months pay for every year of work for all workers is unacceptable. Most cleaners have worked at the university for between six and nine years, renewing their contracts yearly with the exception of the coming year.
According to the newsletter, the university is “determined to continue supporting all its workers through this transition. AUC has urged the firms to hire as many of the university’s current employees in the housekeeping and grounds cleaning areas as possible, subject to the firms’ own interviews and assessments of performance and suitability.”
It quoted MacDougall as saying that AUC “will provide the new firms with a list of all the employees who continue to work diligently until the end of their employment at AUC,” and that the “the companies will soon begin interviewing current employees who may wish to apply for a position with them.”
The university also said it was committed to providing “extra support to those employees who depart in good standing. This includes recommendation letters and positive certificates of service recognizing their good service to AUC … fair severance payments to all affected staff on indefinite period contracts and those on fixed-term contracts ending post-August 31, 2017 … and exceptional bonuses for all staff on fixed-term contracts, provided they continue to serve with their customary full commitment and loyalty to AUC.” It added that staff currently enrolled in AUC’s academic programs, or who have received acceptance letters, will continue their educational programs as per the current enrollment policy.
Rehab Saad, director of media relations, said that workers have been offered severance packages equivalent to two months pay for each year they worked at the university. Workers with temporary contracts have been offered six-month severance packages.
Rehab added that the administration met with the independent union for university workers and the union committee of the General Federation of Egyptian Workers to communicate this to them, and insisted that administration periodically tries to contact the striking workers, saying “we hope things would end well in the end and a consensual settlement be reached.”
A number of faculty members, students and university employees have started a campaign, circulating a petition condemning the university’s decision not to renew the cleaners’ contracts, demanding it be suspended, the contracts renewed and a plan to enhance the quality of the current cleaning service implemented.
Cleaners salaries are currently LE1,850, excluding tax and insurance deductions and without overtime. AUC cleaners went strike in October 2010 in protest to raise their salaries which were approximately LE900 at the time, demanding to be paid the minimum wage of LE1,200 in addition to LE200 for meals.
They also demanded to be given the same weekly holidays as the rest of university staff, as they were given one, not two days off, and called for a renegotiation of their contracts, especially concerning their yearly raises.
The university administration, in response, raised their salaries to LE1,100 including meals and admitted there had been an administrative error in dealing with university cleaners, promising to revise their situation at a later time, according to Walid Shebl, a founder of the university workers’ independent union.
Shebl said the university did not follow through, prompting them to strike again in September 2010, which led another salary increase to LE1,400 including meal money.
2015 saw another cleaners strike take place at AUC demanding the release of late payments owed by the administration, which continued for two days before the university responded to the demands.