Al-Ahram Weekly Online   5 - 11 January 2012
Issue No. 1079
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Disappointment on wheels

Public transport drivers are far from satisfied, Omneya Yousry listens to unfulfilled demands of more than two decades

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Clockwise from top: Abd Rabu; the early morning queue; battling in traffic; starting his shift; now that Abd Rabu also collects the fare from passengers,with no komsary available (the person designated for such a job), he holds the number for his claim to the authority to get an extra pay for the additional job

his big box, he has been roaming the city for the past 35 years. Ali Abd Rabu, who is now 60, has been a driver of public transport in Cairo since 1976. He has witnessed the highs and the lows of the public transport system. One of his simple dreams, which is quite understandable for a driver in one of the busiest cities of the world, is to drive down a quiet street. At times he only wishes for a day without any arguments with passengers or policemen. "Just for one day," says Abd Rabu. Behind the steering wheel and under the uniform and behind his loud voice, he still tries to show people his modest feelings, and wishes they could see him with a different eye.

"Hopes were pinned to the revolution and the new era we wished to witness, but it seems nothing will change," he says, at Al-Mostaqbal parking lot. He will be retiring soon but unfortunately the reward won't meet his expectations. Abd Rabu's salary is, after 35 years of experience, a miserable LE570. Sometimes it reaches LE1,200 with bonuses, but drivers don't receive these incentives every month. "To raise one child now it requires a fortune. What about four kids?" Abd Rabu has four sons and daughters. He believes he has accomplished much with such a low income. While they don't have college degrees, they have diplomas and two got married with his help. His eldest son is also working for the public transport sector, earning LE188 per month. His son is married, has two kids and pays LE350 rent for his apartment and his father, Abd Rabu, helps him to survive.

Life as a bus driver is no walk in the park. Abd Rabu works everyday from 3:30am until 7pm wearing a uniform that makes him feels cold in the winter and hot like hell in summer. Abd Rabu says, "the sector's management should give us two uniforms annually; one for the winter and another for the summer but this doesn't happen except every three or four years. Moreover, the uniform is never the right size." Despite that, the drivers have to wear the uniform, or they could be faced with a salary deduction if noticed by the management.

Despite the lack of passion Abd Rabu carries on with his work. He never thought about quitting because he doesn't have any other skill. "It isn't easy to find another job or maybe it's just that I never had the time to think about it, I am not sure."

On this daily journey, Abd Rabu has to face the eager passengers who won't wait till the bus stops to jump out, and the other passengers who don't want to pay or claim they have paid him. Also the police personnel, who won't pay the ticket, and if he kicks one out, "he could write me a traffic ticket as soon as he is out of the bus."

Yet for Abd Rabu there is a positive side to this job despite everything: "The only thing that makes me endure the hardships of life is meeting nice and kind people inside this bus throughout my very long trip every day." Sharing their joys and misery, the passengers rarely stop talking to the driver.

For a man like Abd Rabu, there is so much that needs to be done to ensure drivers could lead an okay life. Social insurance is a top priority. He explained, "every month, an amount of money is deducted from our salary to cover our social insurance but it is neither delivered to the concerned department nor are our names registered on files. I don't have a number in the department archives to receive my social insurance after retiring. The same happens with all the drivers after reaching the pension age. They go to the social insurance department to receive their checks but don't find their names registered."

Accordingly, they are forced to hire a lawyer, when they can't afford it, to get their rights. At many times, they forgo that right and start to think about the end of the service check to find it doesn't exceed the salary of a total of three or four months at the most, although in any other public sector in Egypt the end of the service gratuity is no less than 120 months' salary, and they are asking only for 100 months' salary.

There is more to Abd Rabu's concerns. Although there is a hospital for the drivers of the public transport, it doesn't support a reasonable level of medical examination, hospitality, medication or medical care. Abd Rabu explained that when they go for a medical examination, they don't find a specialised doctor for their illness and usually get a prescription for a medicine that the hospital pharmacy doesn't have. "I don't need to mention that with my LE570 salary, I can't afford going to private hospitals."

Also dealing with hundreds of passengers every day, Abd Rabu says they are in need for an "infection allowance". "It has been seven years since we called for this right and it is still being studied by the Health Ministry."

To make matters more difficult, Abd Rabu explained that the percentage deducted every month to be added to the social solidarity fund, for them to receive upon retirement, is another problem. "We don't get anything from this fund and even if you are lucky enough to get something, they deduct the last three or four years of your service as if you weren't working during them." Abd Rabu mentioned hundreds of drawbacks that represent obstacles to serving the public in the best way, "besides the unroadworthy wheels, they give us buses with expired licences. The ironic thing is that in case of an expired bus licence, the policeman withdraws my driving licence, and I have to pay the fine from my own money. How can I afford all this? I have 500 days of annual vacation that I cannot take because of the provision. "The need of work doesn't allow and at the same time I am not compensated for them."

During September and October, public transport bus drivers held a strike in the hope of finding a way out. Almost all the state's sectors went on strike or organised protests since 25 January. The public transport strike was by far the longest, 23 days, last October. They have been striking since the late 1980s and started again last September 2011 and ended their strike in October with similar demands.

Ali Abdel-Fotouh, chairman of the Independent Syndicate of Public Transport Workers, stated that the last strike included 2,300 buses in more than 25 depots out of 30 all over Cairo.

Abd Rabu adds: "It's out of our hands. Everything is mixed up in our lives and we are not getting enough to live. I'm not happy that with our strike poor people like us had to fall prey to taxi drivers and the overloaded microbuses in the absence of the public transport buses. I hope the concerned authorities take positive steps and put forward a real timetable for achieving our demands so that we don't need to strike again and negatively affect the country. I know it's ironic -- the poor affect the poor, which is not our aim at all."

Another driver, Wahid Fouad, from Al-Mazalat depot, says "the sector doesn't provide us with spare parts; as a result the buses are not able to complete the shift due to their poor condition." He adds that they are forced to drive buses with wheels called 811, which is forbidden to use anymore in Egypt's streets. Again the financial problems are what strongly affect him like Abd Rabu. "We should have received 200 per cent of the reward incentive since 1995. We are stuck, we either work under the public service, and in this case we have to get three months' salary and seven per cent as an annual premium, or we follow the economic service sector in which we should be paid the 200 per cent as a reward incentive."

Another dilemma facing the bus drivers is the hiring of the public buses to private companies to increase the income and take a percentage of their profit. Ibrahim, a driver under this system, says that "not all the people know that we are working under the public transportation system, which means that the same green bus with the higher fare is also a public transport."

He should work 26 days a month to deliver LE8,000 to the private company he is working for, to be able to take his salary which is LE450.

He believes their problems with the private companies are much worse than those of the public transport drivers. "With all due respect to public drivers, we don't have any rules to protect us, no incentives, no allowances, no social or medical insurance and no annual vacations."

The Public Transport Sector and the Ministry of Finance announced there isn't enough income generated from this service to fulfill the drivers' demands.

However, Wahid argued that as drivers they know that there is a continuous flow of income to the sector. "There is the income of the ads published on the buses, sale of scrap metals of old buses, the percentage from the private companies who rent buses."

Under the name of "public transport sector in Cairo" a Facebook page was created to deliver all the resolutions or intentions of the sector. Its administrator is Engineer Mona Mustafa, who announced lately on the page that an agreement will be signed to regulate pending matters for a year until the People's Assembly convenes. By then the parliament should be the legal force to determine the incentives and allowances for the drivers and the increase in their salaries. Also the page announced recently the approval of the Finance Ministry to provide LE60 million for the sector's workers, pay incentives and meal allowances, and payment of the delayed reward incentives starting from last November.

Abd Rabu doesn't know much about the Internet, not to mention Facebook. Same goes for Wahid and Ibrahim. Abd Rabu and the others didn't know there's a page addressing them in the first place. Abd Rabu says, "I asked more than one colleague and we were all surprised and intrigued to know what they are telling us. His son told him that the younger generation of drivers launched their own page trying to let the management know their concerns as well.

Although the public transport drivers' strike was last year's news, drivers like Badr explained that there could be more strikes in 2012. They were promised certain financial decisions from the former minister of manpower and told that their demands will be studied. On top of their demands was calculating the strike as work days with pay and receiving the 200 per cent of the reward incentive. Now that the whole council of ministers has been changed, the drivers are disappointed, since they have to wait and see how their demands are met by the new minister. "The deadline the government has given us has expired and therefore we might have to start from scratch with a new strike to make sure we get our rights."

While another strike could be possible, the people will remain divided on the effects of striking on the public. Sayeda Shaaban, working in one of the governmental sectors, says "it's the drivers' simplest right to strike calling for a salary raise. Many employees are striking when their salaries are very high, yet the drivers are getting very low pay." On the contrary, Mohamed Abdel-Rehim, working at the Zeinhom Morgue, disagrees. "They should ask for their rights but not to the detriment of ours."

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