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Update: AUC workers end strike after administration files report

The remaining striking workers at the American University in Cairo ended their campus sit-in on Thursday and accepted the severance pay offered by the administration in hopes that the university would drop the reports filed against them to the police, an AUC employee supporting the workers told Mada Masr.

Those on strike feared that they would be arrested on campus after the administration issued a statement on Wednesday saying that if striking cleaners do not respond to its settlement offer before 3 pm, it will consider this a rejection of the offer and “will report to the local authorities the names of those employees who continue to unlawfully remain on campus while on mandatory administrative leave.”

Past the 3 pm deadline on Wednesday, striking workers on campus said they were “still discussing their response” and had not yet been confronted by the university administration. The meeting was held amid increasing worries after a number of workers accepted the university’s offer.

Administrator Sherine Emad, who supports the workers, said that on Thursday the university’s vice president, Ihab Abdel Rahman, promised the workers that the administration would drop all official complaints and extend the original severance offer in exchange for ending the strike and exiting university premises.

Emad added that the workers had complied and left campus, but were waiting outside the gates to ensure that the complaints have been dropped, and to wait for a representative from the university’s legal office to sign the severance papers.

The university administration had announced last week that it intends to not renew the contracts of its cleaning staff this summer, and plans to hire two private companies for housekeeping and grounds cleaning in its New Cairo and Tahrir campuses.

The university had offered employees severance packages equivalent to two months pay for each year of work at the university, while offering workers with temporary contracts (who make up the majority of the custodial staff) severance packages equivalent to six months’ salary. The university said it would give the workers recommendation letters and has already agreed with the two prospective companies to hold interviews with the cleaners for employment.

The workers do not expect to be hired by the two new companies, especially after the “trouble” they made, said one worker in reference to the strike. They also expect that the new companies will hire younger workers who will accept lower wages and less benefits.

Around 170 cleaners started a strike on July 16, protesting the surprise announcement, and rejected the settlement offered by the university administration. The cleaners demanded the decision be revoked, or a settlement of no less than two months for every year of service. Most cleaners have worked at the university for between six and nine years, with some exceeding that number.

During the strike, a number of disgruntled workers said that they were unhappy with the way the administration was treating them. One worker said: “I’m not concerned about the 11 days we spent on strike, but about the 10 years that I have worked here, and how we are now left out like dogs.”

Brian MacDougall, executive vice president of administration and finance visited the cleaners’ sit-in along with senior administration staff.

“The administration respects you and does not intend to offend anyone, but we want to end the situation without any problems,” said legal affairs representative Ibrahim Magdi, addressing the strikers. “We want to ease the burden of the crisis on you.”

“The offer the university is making you is very generous compared to what is granted by the law and the contracts you signed with us. Out of our appreciation of you we will postpone the deadline for accepting the offer until 2 pm for those present and 4 pm for those outside the university, otherwise we will consider the offer to be rejected,” he continued, to which the cleaners responded by rejecting the settlement.

Staff had received messages early on Wednesday saying “Please note that the university administration has decided to give you a paid holiday starting from today, July 26 2017, until further notice. You are not allowed to enter the university during this period, and your identity cards have been suspended. The transport service will be halted from today and during the period of your vacation.”

Following the decision to bar cleaners from entering the campus, 25 cleaners filed a report to document the incident at the Fifth Settlement Police Station and presented a copy of the report to the Ministry of Manpower and Immigration, according to Mostafa Mohalel, one of the employees who filed the report.

Wael Mohamed, one of the cleaners at the Tahrir campus in downtown Cairo, said about 30 cleaners were barred from entering the campus on Wednesday, with the exception of the head of the housekeeping department and its head supervisor.

Ahmed Hashem, a spokesperson for the striking cleaners,a said the Abdeen Police Station has so far refused to file a report documenting the cleaners being prevented from entering the university, and said the workers would wait until the station chief arrived. If they are unsuccessful in filing the report, he said, they would send a telegram to the general prosecutor’s office containing the details of the incident. He added that a delegation from the Ministry of Manpower visited the striking workers on Tuesday and promised to intervene.

During the past week, a number of cleaners accepted the settlement offered by the university administration. Hashem estimates that so far half of the cleaners have signed the termination of contract letter. One of the cleaners who accepted the severance package, who preferred to remain anonymous, told Mada Masr that the human resources department met with cleaners on an individual basis to present them with the offer of six-months’ pay, adding that a number of cleaners have already been paid their severance package.

The university had justified its move in a statement last week 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.” It added that the companies will provide “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 had decreased the cleaners’ workforce from approximately 370 workers to the current 170, despite the increase in workload resulting from the move to the bigger campus that year. He added that one of the prospective companies said they would need 50 staff to maintain the sciences and engineering building, as opposed to the 15 workers currently in charge of cleaning it.

Around 500 faculty members, students and university employees have signed a petition condemning the university’s decision not to renew the cleaners’ contracts, demanding the decision be suspended, the contracts be renewed and a plan to enhance the quality of the current cleaning service be implemented.

The AUC Student Union issued a statement saying “the student union of the American University in Cairo gives its complete support for the striking cleaners, and announces its rejection of the surprise and arbitrary decision by the administration to dissolve the current cleaning department entirely without renewing the contracts of 170 cleaners and resorting to an outside services contractor to conduct cleaning services instead of the current workers.”

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