BY: AHMED REFAI
A recent administrative decision to subcontract housekeeping and custodial services has sparked outrage among the current staff, faculty and students alike.
The decision will result in the dismissal of 170 employees currently working at AUC.
More than 108 members of the AUC New Campus housekeeping staff continued into their sixth day of a sit-in on Thursday in protest of the decision.
A statement released by AUC administration through News@AUC on Monday said that the decision aims to “improve campus services and increase efficiency” by replacing the current housekeeping staff with two private cleaning companies, who will not been named until contracts are finalized.
Outsourcing the cleaning service will reportedly cut up to 25 percent of the University’s budget allocated to housekeeping, confirmed Student Union (SU) President Mohamed Gadalla.
An overwhelming majority of the 170 affected workers (130 at the New Campus, and 40 at the Tahrir Campus) are, however, joining in on the protest, ignoring the administration’s attempt to facilitate the transition.
The administration has attempted to assuage the situation by offering severance packages and employment recommendations at the new housekeeping company to workers who “continue to work diligently through their employment at AUC,” as Brian MacDougall, executive vice president for administration and finance, said in the statement.
“The demonstrators are in a state of extreme anger due to the University’s decisions. They feel like the University has let them down,” Waleed Shebl, a worker at Parcel 17, told The Caravan.
“A lot of workers come all the way from the governorates of El-Monufia and El-Sharqia to work, and after all these years they feel like the University has let them down and thrown them to the streets.
A large number came here at the age of 30 and are now over 40 years old–one of our colleagues is 59 years old. For them to dismiss them in such a humiliating manner and without justification… people are very angry,” he added.
Protesters are demanding that the contracts with the private housekeeping companies be annulled and that those with the existing workers be renewed.
“We have two demands from which we won’t back down or bargain: the ability to keep our jobs and not get laid off, and the complete restructuring of the housekeeping department. We’re not thinking of other options; this is a matter of life or death for us,” Shebl said.
Although there had been rumors of the University making such a move in the past, there was no transparency in the decision-making process, he added.
“We want to know what we did to deserve this. If we are too few, increase our numbers, don’t let us go. We are all highly skilled and competent, you can ask the people in the department and the professors,” Abeer, another housekeeping worker said.
LINES OF COMMUNICATION
The workers, who are still congregated in the empty HUSS Plaza, say they are growing exceedingly frustrated with the way the administration is handling the sit-in, particularly in that they have not provided direct channels of communication.
“The only time we were able to communicate [with the administration], it was indirect. They told us we will talk to the official union and they will get back to you. We’d tell them ‘please, we could sit and speak to you,’ and they would say no,” Shebl added.
The strike has been hampered by a lack of organization and unity among the workers.
Members of the official syndicate, registered with the General Federation of Egyptian Trade Unions, split and formed a separate, informal one after a disagreement during a previous strike.
However, the administration insists that it has since then maintained open lines with all affected parties.
“There is still communication until now. There are people from the administration directly talking to [the workers],” said Rehab Saad, director of media relations at the Office of Advancement and Communications.
“This week, on Monday, there was a meeting between the administration and the two syndicates, and the administration sent out what exactly had been agreed upon in that meeting.”
Saad added that “there are already [workers] who have abandoned the sit-in and accepted the University’s offer,” without specifying the exact number.
Shebl, however, says that there were only 108 names on Tuesday’s sign-in sheet.
“There are absences; there is no way that all 130 will be present every day. Those who have went on to work [for the other companies] are maybe 10,” he said.
The SU took part in the meeting on Monday, in which President Gadalla said they attempted to voice the workers’ concerns.
“It is an administrative decision; we are not decision makers regarding this issue. We totally support their cause but I cannot guarantee that the students will be present and stand with the workers since students are sometimes passive about this issue,” he said.
The University has offered workers six months’ pay as compensation, he added.
BETTER QUALITY; BUT AT WHAT STAKE?
Some workers have complained that the amount should be calculated as two month’s pay for every year of service citing Article 122 of the Egyptian Labor Law (No. 12 of 2003) on compensation for “unjustified termination.”
However, since the University signs “definite period employment contracts” with housekeeping workers, they are only liable to cover the full wage which the employee would have been entitled to throughout the entire period of the contract.
“The administration has been trying to take this decision for the last five years,” Gadalla added.
Saad said that the current service was not sustainable and did not reach the level of quality the University hoped for, echoing the administration’s statement.
“The whole idea is about quality, but at the same time we care about the human beings, and that is why we gave the names of all the workers to the new companies to interview, train, and select whoever they want to select. There are offers, whether definite or indefinite contracts, with the workers. All the workers whose kids are studying [at AUC] will also continue doing so.”
Furthermore, while the companies “greatly welcomed” the idea of hiring previous workers, as Saad said, it was not mentioned explicitly in any contractual agreement that the companies are obligated to hire a specific number of workers, leaving the matter to the discretion of the companies.
There have been concerns that the new service will not bring about a higher quality of service.
Mada Masr reported that, according to the strikers’ spokesperson Ahmed Hashem, a private cleaning company would have cost 400,000 EGP for President Ricciardone’s inauguration, whereas the University cleaners completed the event for only 100,000 EGP.
It is unknown if the same cleaning company considered for the inauguration are among the two the administration intends on subcontracting.
The demonstrations have nevertheless continued, garnering the attention of both faculty and students on social media.
So far, two workers have been hospitalised due to fatigue from the sit-in.
Mohamed Shaker was transported from the University clinic to the Air Force General Hospital after experiencing severe panic and an emetic episode.
Another worker, identified on social media as ‘Am Mostafa, was photographed on a hospital bed with a caption reading “the second case of fainting at the AUC sit-in.”
Both social media posts provoked reactions from several members of the community.
The online response was, however, predominantly passive, with only a handful of people physically supporting the sit-in, by offering to give out water, juice, and snacks in solidarity with the workers.
“There are very few people who are willing to actually help us,” said Mariam Hamdy, a visual arts junior, who was urging students to join her in bringing supplies to the protestors.
“Well, from what I’m seeing, there were barely any students when we went to check up on the workers yesterday, but at the same time, people are still talking about wanting things to change on Facebook,” she added.
An online petition has been circulating across Facebook, accompanying a statement that read “We the undersigned – faculty, students, staff, and workers at AUC – are dismayed and outraged by the decision of the University to lay off (which in the administration’s language is phrased as not renewing contracts) 170 housekeeping workers at AUC, whose service to the University has been on average for a decade, if not more.”
“I think one the main things is to make the workers feel supported, and to do that, I think people should be going to sit in with them. I was talking to someone who suggested we help the workers look for jobs. What is left is for these plans to be executed,” Hamdy said.
President Francis J. Ricciardone told News@AUC that the administration took the decision “after a thorough and careful review of ways to enhance campus services for the benefit of all who study, teach, work, and visit AUC.”
He added that “[the administration] will do [its] best to ensure the smoothest, most considerate transition” to all those affected by the decision.
The Caravan reached out to Executive VP Brian MacDougall, who did not respond with a comment.
Noel Knille, vice president for campus services, however, declined to comment.
“Due to the sensitivity of the situation and the ongoing discussions with those concerned, it is not appropriate for me to comment at this time,” Knille said.