Sunday,17 February, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1402, (19 - 25 July 2018)
Sunday,17 February, 2019
Issue 1402, (19 - 25 July 2018)

Ahram Weekly

Guarding porters’ rights

Parliament is discussing a draft law on the rights of building guards. Mai Samih, meanwhile, finds out how the Building Guards Syndicate plans to protect its members’ rights

building guard by Tamer Youssef
building guard by Tamer Youssef

bawab, from bab or door in Arabic, is a man who guards a door, in other words a doorman or porter or more accurately a building guard. This is a job that is instantly recognisable to residents of Cairo, since bawabs are often present at the entrances of buildings to provide security to residents. 

 A bawab may even become one of the most important people in a building, sometimes buying groceries, finding plumbers or electricians, acting as a broker, and even being responsible for car parking. 

In many Egyptian films bawabs are represented as knowing about residents’ secrets, visitors and lifestyles. In the late 1980s, a typical bawab was played by the late Ahmed Zaki in the film Al-Bey Al-Bawab (His Excellency the Porter, 1987) directed by Hassan Ibrahim, for example. Zaki played the role of Abdel-Samei, a young man from Upper Egypt who arrives with his family to guard a building in Cairo. Gradually he discerns the needs of building residents and becomes a multi-tasking broker, even beginning to make money of his own and building a residential tower.

His colleagues regard him as a local godfather and have the idea of starting an official syndicate for building porters. 

However, the idea of starting a Building Guards Syndicate is not just something found in film, but has become a necessity due to the often hard working conditions porters face. As a result, the Building Guards Syndicate, formed in 2012, is putting together a schedule of rights to protect its members.

An example of such tough working conditions can be found in the five-storey building in Giza guarded by Aam Sayed, 48, who lives there with his wife and four children in a room stacked with electricity meters on the ground floor next to the stairs. He completed primary school education until grade six and worked in many fields before becoming a building guard. 

“I live with my wife, two daughters and son in one room at the entrance of the building we serve all day every day. I have to keep my phone on all the time to deal with any problems. I have to be present when the owners call, even at 3am. I rarely take holidays. I even have to open the door to let in the air while my children are asleep in the hot weather while I sit in the corridor,” Sayed said.

“When I asked the owners for a room to sleep in, they refused, claiming that the authorities would demolish the building if there was a ‘violation’,” said Mustafa Ibrahim, 48, a building guard in Nasr City originally from Sharqiya in the Delta. He completed his preparatory education and is the father of three children at different levels of education. “I work as a porter, plumber and electrician, but I am still maltreated,” he complained.  

Al-Sayed Ismail, 54, a building guard who has been on the job for 30 years, agrees. He comes from Sharqiya and has a salary of LE600, obliging him to wash cars to make ends meet. He lives with his wife and two children in the entrance of a garage of a 12-storey building. “People think we don’t just work as porters but also as brokers, and so we are able to make some money that way. But this is not totally true. Even if we rent a flat, we do not get our financial rights since we are not registered as brokers,” he said.

Amer, 42, has been a building guard in an apartment complex in Cairo for 10 years. He graduated from a technical school in 1990. “I work as a porter in this complex,” he said. “But I also work as a broker.”

Abdallah Abdel-Aziz, deputy chairman of the Building Guards Syndicate in Cairo, explains how it started. “A group of building guards in Nasr City met to discuss their problems and decided to help solve them by establishing a syndicate. A building guard called Reda introduced us to Ahmed Badr, a professor of law, who helped us to establish the syndicate in terms of legal procedures, and we are now present in four governorates,” he said.

Each syndicate committee in each governorate now has 56 members plus nine managing members. In Cairo, most building guards who work in the Sheraton Heliopolis area and Nasr City are from Sharqiya, while those who work in 6 October City are mostly from Fayoum, Beni Sweif and Giza. In Heliopolis, they are mostly from Minya and Beni Sweif, Abdel-Aziz added.


PORTERS’ RIGHTS: “If the syndicate can give us our rights it will be like a dream come true,” Sayed said. “I have been a member of the syndicate for two years. If it is allowed to go on with its work, it will bring us our rights,” Ibrahim added. 

“I was told about the syndicate by Abdel-Aziz and have been a member for three years now. I am looking forward to receiving more training,” Ismail said. 

 “The syndicate aims at making sure that building guards are treated decently by the owners of the building, live in a decent place, are given a decent income that they can live on, and last but not least are not fired without warning. In such cases in the past guards have been evicted with their families even though they come from another governorate and have been accustomed to living in a safe place,” Abdel-Aziz said.

“This is why we intend to make it obligatory to sign a contract between the building owner and the guard under the supervision of the syndicate. Every building syndicate should have a bank account from which medical insurance can be paid for the guard. The current law states that 60 per cent of the guard’s insurance should be paid from this account. If a guard leaves, he should receive two months’ income for every year’s work — but this stipulation is almost never acted upon,” he added. 

Badr, the lawyer who was a co-founder of the syndicate, said that “a building guard should obtain a licence from the syndicate to start working. There should also be cooperation between the Interior Ministry and building guards to help prevent crime.” Overall, the syndicate can help building owners save money and help guards increase their income, Abdel-Aziz said. “We intend to sign a contract with the civil-defence authorities to train building guards on how to deal with problems like fires and how to fix elevators,” he added. 

“In order to become a member of the syndicate, a guard should have a good reputation, no criminal record, and not be over 60,” Abdel-Aziz said. He must also know how to read and write. “There are many building guards who have obtained technical certificates and university degrees. The young woman who obtained the highest grades in the Thanaweya Amma [secondary school certificate] last year was the daughter of a building guard,” he added.  

The syndicate has not been recognised by the media since it does not have the means to publish advertisements, Abdel-Aziz said. However, it helps provide members with services like discounts on medicine and hospital treatment. “The main aim of the syndicate is to raise the awareness of building guards of their rights, not just to give them discounts for services,” he said. “They have rights equal to those working in the public sector.”

Parliament is also discussing a draft law on the rights of building guards. Chair of the parliament’s Committee of Municipalities Mohamed Al-Husseini told Al-Youm Al-Sabei newspaper recently that the new law would license porters or building guards, requiring them to seek official registration. The law aimed to make the guards part of the formal economy, providing them with decent living conditions including health insurance, he said. 

Badr commented that “Law 68/1970 already covers building guards, but it needs to be implemented. The state needs to support the existing regulations, and draft laws should be discussed by all parties before being ratified,” he said. Under the old system, building guards typically had to pay 40 per cent of medical insurance costs. This needed to decrease to 10 per cent or less, he added.

“The state should give building guards land to build houses on, since these are people who typically do not have the LE10,000 or LE20,000 needed as a deposit on a flat. There should also be a quota for the children of guards in government jobs. We need to think about the welfare of the generations to come. Porters should be supported to do their jobs well,” Badr said, adding that the profession should be recognised on ID cards.

“Nobody has discussed the new law with us as the syndicate. If contracts between guards and building owners are private, this will leave no room for the syndicate. Our members need decent accommodation and decent welfare provisions,” Abdel-Aziz said. 

“People forget that a building guard is very important as he makes sure the building is secure and clean. He makes sure that services are maintained such as lifts. Some provisions in the draft law are positive steps, but a syndicate that preserves the rights of building guards is also a good step,” said one Cairo resident speaking on condition of anonymity. 


DECENT WORK: According to the 2015 UN Human Development Report, about 95 per cent of Egyptians now live along the River Nile, especially in Cairo, Alexandria and the major Nile Delta cities, or less than five per cent of the total area of Egypt. This means that there is still enormous pressure on urban job markets, including in the services sector such as building guards.

Some 26.3 per cent of Egyptians live below the poverty line, the UN report says. According to a 2010 report by the UN, Cairo accounts for high rates of internal migration from Upper Egypt, or labour migration from an area that is considered under-developed and poor to one that is less so. Many of these workers end up working in the informal employment sector.

“I came to Cairo as there were no job opportunities in Upper Egypt. In my home town in Aswan people either work in agriculture or tourism, but the income from agriculture does not make ends meet. As for tourism, not as many tourists come as used to be the case. In general, there is little development in the governorates of Upper Egypt,” Aam Sayed said. His friend Amer from Assiut agreed. He has worked two jobs to make ends meet, he said.

Internal migration from Upper Egypt to Cairo has been going on for decades, with migrants seeking better health services, education and whatever was lacking in Upper Egypt. Before the completion of the Aswan High Dam in the 1960s, farmers from Upper Egypt used to work in agriculture on a seasonal basis, for the rest of the year working as servants, drivers, and porters in various cities. This system was referred to as taraheel, and it yielded only a minimum standard of living.

“We need a new law giving us our rights. We want an increase in our salaries, a decent place to live, and to be treated well, nothing more,” commented Ibrahim. “We need better salaries and stable working conditions. If the new law can give us these things, it is a blessing,” Ismail said. 

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