Asmaa* was accustomed to regularly checking the WhatsApp group of RC International School’s teachers to stay up to date with the school’s administration and its decisions, especially during the partial lockdown that was imposed in early April due to the novel coronavirus. By the second week after the academic year ended, the group’s notifications were bringing unusual news. Several of her colleagues were being removed from the group without any explanation or any comment from the administration. A few days later, Asmaa herself was removed from the group. She discovered that these notifications were a sign that she, alongside dozens of employees and teachers, would be laid off.
The coronavirus crisis exposed the precarious conditions of teachers in private schools: since the school year ended, there has been a marked uptick in complaints about wrongful dismissal, contract terminations, and withheld salaries.
However, the crisis is not exactly new. The deterioration of private school teachers’ working conditions did not start with the pandemic but entails years of job instability, deprivation of labor rights, and low salaries that range from LE800 to LE2,500 in local schools and LE5,000 to LE9,000 in international schools, according to 18 teachers with varying teaching experiences who spoke to Mada Masr.
While the need to pay teachers’ salaries was supposedly the major reason why private school management refused to return portions of tuition fees after the Education Ministry decided to halt school attendance in March, some schools went ahead after the decision to lay off administrative employees, teaching assistants, and extracurricular and physical education tutors. Although Education Minister Tarek Shawqi issued a decision by late April obliging private schools to retain its employees at the same salary rate, another layoff wave in mid May saw the teachers of core subjects let go once digital classes concluded, according to school employees who spoke to Mada Masr.
Rehab*, 21, has worked as an Arabic language teacher at several schools, the latest of which was RC International. Rehab, who felt stable in her last job, had her contract with the school terminated in May due to a “lack of competencies.” According to Rehab, several other teachers and employees lost their jobs. Another teacher, who spoke to Mada Masr on condition of anonymity, decided to file a police report to prove that the administration is withholding her salary. The school fired back with accusations that she stole from the school.
“I felt insulted. I am not a young woman, and I have kids. After all of this, they accuse me of stealing?” says the teacher.
The school eventually withdrew its accusation of theft, and the teacher went to the labor office in the Labor Force Ministry to file a complaint, which remains unaddressed.
RC International’s branch in Egypt is one of a chain of schools owned by a Gulf country investor, a school administration employee tells Mada Masr. Tuition fees for kindergarten start at LE70,000.
Administrative employees have been caught up in these layoff waves as well. Fatma Ashraf, who studied French in the language faculty at Ain Shams University, landed an administrative job at the New Vision school in the Haram neighborhood of Giza, taking in a monthly salary of LE1,400 — below Egypt’s LE2,000 minimum wage. After schools were closed in March, the school told Ashraf to choose between taking unpaid leave until September and continuing to come to work twice a week on a part-time basis at half of the salary. Although Fatma chose the part-time option, the school decided not to renew her contract in June, laying her off alongside a number of other employees and teachers. The school’s annual tuition starts at LE26,000 and increases progressively to LE34,000 for the secondary school level.
However, those who decided to go to work, such as one teacher who spoke to Mada Masr on condition of anonymity and worked at the New Generational International School in the Cairo neighborhood of Maadi whose tuition stands at LE20,000, were not any luckier. According to the NG school teacher, power was regularly cut off once he and his colleagues arrived at school, leaving them to work with no lights or internet. According to several teachers, schools piled on the workload to try to push them to take unpaid leave, asking teachers to mark the exams for a second time and revising previous years’ “booklet modules” — a small booklet of questions teachers prepare for students.
Mada Masr tried to contact the schools for comment on their employees’ remarks, but none responded except RC International, which denied any wrongful terminations. The school said that some employees’ contracts were terminated based on the administration’s evaluations, while others resigned willingly, and affirmed that all legal procedures were rightly in place.
In turn, owners of private schools and the head of the Private School Owners Association Al-Mandooh al-Hosseiny maintained that teachers who left work during the pandemic have willingly resigned due to their lack of digital skills and failure to adapt to e-learning requirements. Hosseiny also vehemently denies that schools forced or negotiated with teachers to resign, adding that there was “no foul play involved” in employees’ contracts.
The private education sector employs more than 17,000 teachers in more than 7,500 private schools, according to the latest figures from the Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics published in 2019. Each of these schools falls under one of the Education Ministry’s education directorates distributed across the country according to their geographical location. These directorates are tasked with the regular monitoring of private schools, starting at a technical level and providing educational guides to the administration to steer curriculum to inspecting the competency, working conditions, employment contracts and social insurance payments of teachers, according to Hazem Atallah, an owner of a private school. However, the outlined monitoring tasks of education directorates have little bearing on the reality of teaching conditions, according to several teachers who spoke to Mada Masr.
The Education Ministry’s dependence on private schools explains why there has not been any direct confrontation between the two sides despite the violations, according to an owner of a private school who spoke to Mada Masr on condition of anonymity. A new system called the Twinning Project was introduced by the ministry to pair private schools with public ones, says the owner. Under this system, public schools are provided continuous assistance from private schools in the same geographical educational administration. “If the directorate wants to plan a school trip, how would it bring busses? If the directorate has a theater show, who will fund this? Private schools take on these things free of charge. However, everything has a price in the end.”
In April, MP Ismael Nasr Eddin sent an urgent letter to the prime minister and education minister to inquire about wrongful terminations in several private schools. The ministry responded that teachers who were fired during the pandemic were either working without contracts or had been on a temporary three-month contract, Nasr Eddin told Mada Masr, criticizing these practices as a circumvention of the law to fire employees.
Wrongful termination is merely the back end of several violations that start from the contract signing stage after teachers end their three-month probation period, according to several private school teachers. The teachers describe a prevalent practice wherein teachers are summoned in the middle of their classes to quickly sign a 20-page contract so that they can go back to the students without having the time to thoroughly read the contract. They are also not provided with a copy of the contract, a violation of the labor law.
Egypt’s labor law mandates that an employer issue three copies of a contract: One for the employee, one for the employer, and one to be deposited in the social insurance office. However, schools ask teachers to sign only one copy and avoid submitting a copy with social insurance to evade legal and financial responsibilities related to the social insurance of employees, according to teachers who spoke to Mada.
Several other tactics are deployed by school administrations to circumvent their legal responsibility toward teachers. The single copy, which is not submitted to any official entity and is usually used by schools to manipulate its paperwork internally, sometimes include clauses in the contract and its attachments that require exceptional renewals for the contract to remain effective, says Mahmoud Said, who discovered these clauses while signing his document. “Most private schools’ paperwork is in the clear despite the manipulation. That’s why no one manages to claim their rights,” he says.
Other schools strong-arm teachers to sign undated documents confirming that they had received their severance payment even before they sign the job contract, so as to evade legal responsibility if the administration wants to fire the employee later. Other schools lay off employees on an annual basis to make new hires to avoid annual raises in salaries on social insurance, a former director of a school tells Mada Masr.
Another major violation exposed by those who spoke to Mada Masr is wrongful deductions from salaries. Wafaa Mostafa, who has been working as a teacher in a private school taking home LE850 per month after also graduating from the Alsun Faculty. A day off came with a LE100 deduction, more than double what her daily prorated salary would come to. Wafaa had to take a two-week unpaid leave at some point that resulted in the administration deducting her whole salary. The administration also asked her to pay LE45 for the social insurance payment. After resigning, Wafaa discovered that she was not even socially insured to begin with.
False claims to have secured social insurance for teachers is a recurring incident. A teacher, who preferred to remain anonymous, discovered that she was not insured by chance during a work visit to the Education Directorate after 7 years of working in a famous international school. Knowing that the teacher had become aware of the insurance situation, the school decided to lay off her by giving her two options: signing a resignation letter and receiving a salary of two months or firing her to actively prevent her from being hired in any school in the future. The teacher chose to sign a resignation to avoid the hassle, she told Mada Masr.
Out of all the teachers who spoke to Mada Masr, only two resorted to the law in an attempt to reclaim their rights, including Dina Reda, who had worked as a German teacher for two years in a private school where she suffered from dire work conditions, maltreatment, and work pressure with a low salary.
Before the Eid Fitr break, the school’s administration informed Reda that she would be laid off, three months before the end of her contract. She did not object to the decision and headed to the school to get her severance package, expecting a two-month salary in accordance with the labor law. However, she was surprised that the school was trying to negotiate payment of the severance package to come in installments: a one-month salary which she has already worked and the severance package in different periods. Reda turned down the offer and left to the labor office in the Labor Force Ministry to file a complaint. When the office started investigating the school, it claimed that Reda was working without a contract. In turn, Reda filed evidence proving that she was socially insured, which the school tried to go around by claiming that Dina’s contract had ended already. Following the school’s intransigence and contradictory responses, the office sided with Reda and forced the school’s administration to pay out the severance package.
Under the current shortage of alternative job opportunities, especially in the Education Ministry’s public schools, which are currently only hiring teachers via problematic temporary contracts due to limited budget, and despite needing at least 360,000 new teachers due to acute shortage, some private school teachers have decided to boycott private school job offers during the ongoing hiring period. The teachers have started a Facebook group, inviting their colleagues to join their initiative to respond to the harsh working conditions and continuous labor violations. Although the initiative has garnered hundreds of members so far, several teachers said they doubt that the campaign will be able to carry on for long, especially as private tutoring, an alternative source of income, is also being phased out.