Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Cairo's Bus Workers Strike & Win

Al-Masry Al-Youm

A strike by the city’s bus drivers has ended after the government gave-in to most of their demands
By Lina Attalah

Many of Cairo’s public busses have disappeared from the capital city’s street over the past two days. Drivers, ticket-takers and mechanics from 14 of the 19 bus garages in Cairo and Giza governorates are on strike demanding improved working conditions and awaiting tangible responses from the authorities.

The effect on the streets was immediate, with far fewer public busses on the street and large crowds gathering at many city bus stops.

The government response was equally swift. On Wednesday evening, the strikers received an offer from the Public Transportation Authority meeting most of their demands and agreed to return to work.

The new government concessions, which will return the busses to the streets, include: an 8 percent salary increase, an exemption for drivers from most traffic fines, a monthly food allowance for LE120 for drivers and ticket-takers, and agreement to consider paying compensation to drivers and ticket-takers for their daily potential exposure to infectious diseases.

The government counter-offer seemingly ensures that Cairo’s public busses will be back on the street Thursday. The drivers, ticket-takers, mechanics and other support workers had threatened to stay in their garages indefinitely until the government met their long list of demands.

Topping the list of complaints were the pay scale, the drivers’ treatment by police officers on the streets of the capital.

“The road fines are unbearable," said Dossuki Abdul Basset, a driver of an air-conditioned bus in the Mustaqbal garage in the Nasr City district in East Cairo. The garage houses around 100 busses and 700 workers, all of whom are participating in the strike, Abdul Basset said. “If I make 240 LE a month and I have compiled fines worth of LE 500, then it’s unfair."

According to him, drivers demand exemption from traffic fines unless it’s for major violations like driving the wrong way up a one-way street or breaking traffic lights. “We get penalized if we are parked in a no-parking area. But that’s usually because the busses are in very poor conditions and not well-maintained," he said. Another common fine is imposed when the bus is over-crowded with passengers, which the drivers say is impossible to avoid the shortage of available busses.

Some drivers complained of city policemen routinely demanding free rides. Policemen and military personnel are usually exempted from paying bus fares, but this does not apply to air-conditioned busses.

“When we tell them so, they threaten to penalize us," said Abdul Basset.

Drivers expounded on the poor conditions of the busses. “Percentages of the day’s revenues and the LE 5 daily fare collection fee that are granted to drivers are deducted if the bus is broken, but no money is spent on maintaining busses," said Afifi Afifi, a mechanic who works in the Mustaqbal garage. According to him, the Cairo governorate hasn’t supplied enough spare parts, leaving many of the busses barely functional. Out of 100 busses in the garage, 35 are not working, while others are in need for maintenance.

“Drivers are told to take the busses even if they are functioning at a 10 percent capacity only. When the bus is broken in the middle of the road, drivers are penalized by not getting the revenues’ percentage while they are fined for stopping in the middle of the road," Afifi said.

Long-time workers are also worried about their retirement schemes. “We get deductions from our salaries to go to social insurance, but they don’t actually go there," said Adel Mohammad Moussa, a 59-year old driver. On many pay slips, the social insurance number is absent while deductions show. According to him, retired workers do not get their pensions easily and they are just sent off with an insufficient end-of-service reward. Poor healthcare is also a source of unrest amongst the public transportation sector workers who said that the current packages do not adequately cover their families’ needs.

Officials from the General Union for Land Transport Worker worked to mediate between the strikers and the Cairo and Giza governorates. “We are the representatives of our colleagues and we take the responsibility of presenting their demands to the governor," said Bayoumi Mohammad Thabet, vice president of the union’s Committee for Mini-Busses and Air-Conditioned Busses in an interview with Al-Masry Al-Youm conducted prior to the government’s counter offer.

“The governorate is very responsive and promises workers to find solutions to their problems," said Thabet. “In 2007, workers demanded a raise in incentives and they were raised from 3 percent to 6 percent (of basic wage). This has cost the governorate LE 30 million," he added.

A smaller group of drivers, fare collectors and mechanics went on strike in the summer of 2007, making the same demands, but they claim little has been done so far. The strikers two years ago also demanded an increase in their cut of the overall ticket revenues percentages from 2 percent to 10 percent, say they settled and returned to work after the governorate raised it to 4 percent.

“Those issues cannot be settled by the governor alone. He does not own a bank. There have to be talks with the ministries of health and finance for the allowances issue," said Thabet.

Many of the workers say they no longer want the public bus system to answer to the different governorates and want to come under the authority of the Ministry of Public Transportation like railways workers.

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