In the midst of the well-esteemed American University of Beirut lies a group of roughly 600 daily-wage workers who, in the recent months, have been getting significantly stripped of their financial rights. Our conversations with them have revealed the extent of their mistreatment and we at Watchdogs find it necessary to transmit this information to the AUB student body.
Disclaimer: All names of the workers we spoke with have been changed for the purpose of this article.
It’s important to contextualise the work contracts of daily-wage workers at AUB. The workers are employed through a subcontracting company, or a vendor, named SAMCO which has been working with AUB for the past 30 years or so. Employing workers through a third party like SAMCO is financially beneficial to the university as they do not have to deal with the contracts or be held responsible for any mistreatment. AUB only pays the salary of the one-man company SAMCO and he is the one responsible for the 600 workers’ salaries and wellbeing.
The workers earn 41,000 L.L per day and they had previously worked 23 days per month summing up to 943,000 L.L per month. With the onset of economic collapse, their working days got cut to 15 days and were later increased to 16 following the objection of the workers. 16 days a month at 41,000 L.L per day means 656,000 per month which, at the current rate of devaluation of the Lebanese pound, makes their purchasing power less than 400,000 per month. Additionally, when the workers recently requested that they get paid the standard 8,000 L.L daily transportation fee, they were told that the 41 thousand liras they earn are inclusive of that. So, without transportation fees, their salary is 33,000 L.L per day (the Lebanon minimum wage is 30,000 pounds per day), or 528,000 L.L in a month of 16 working days.
What’s the nature of work the workers are expected to put forward for these salaries? The jobs of the daily-wage workers are mostly the maintenance and cleaning of almost all the buildings at AUB. The workers are not insured by either AUB or SAMCO and are still expected to do the dangerous jobs. Eyad, a worker who has worked at AUB for 14 years as a janitor, broke his arm and sustained injuries while cleaning a window and being precariously supported by some equipment. He had to take 2 months off work and only received 3 days of paid leave. Laila, another worker, mentioned how she barely got paid 33,000 pounds when she couldn’t work for a month following a surgery. Another worker was almost fired due to her pregnancy until the employers were pressured into keeping her for the simple fact that it would be illegal to fire her.
The workers are also made to work in the labs and the morgue at AUB and AUBMC without taking the right precautions. Until a worker got infected with Hepatitis B while working in the hospital, the administration hadn’t given the workers the vaccinations they need to work in these high-risk conditions.
Daily wage workers at AUB also do not get schooling fees for their children in the way that the workers with contracts from AUB do. This includes the AUB tuition that workers and employees with fixed contracts receive. They also do not get any annual paid days off for vacation as the labor laws state they should. Men and women who have been working on campus for more than a decade receive virtually no benefits, and yet they had not complained for the fear that they would lose what little honest income they were making. It’s been 5 years since AUB last fixed a worker’s salary and made them AUB employees rather than SAMCO employees, so none of the current workers are expecting to receive any of these benefits. All they are requesting is an improved contract that protects their rights.
The workers also mentioned various microaggressions that they endure from the administration. An example included discrimination against the daily workers wherein the mothers with fixed contracts with AUB recieved flowers on Mother’s Day while a daily employee was told she cannot have one when she reached for it. Being a daily wage worker means living in constant fear that one is expendable, a sentiment which the workers’ managers regularly remind them of. The workers are afraid that they will be replaced by cheaper foriegn labor and collectively lose their jobs which has already happened in the newly renovated Kerr Hall student housing building.
The workers, after many blows to their financial security, wrote and signed letters to the AUB administration and their vendor SAMCO respectfully requesting better working conditions and listing the troubles mentioned earlier in this article. Following the reception of the letters, Mohamad el-Sammak, SAMCO, and Hanan Itani, Director of Procurement & Contracts Administration at AUB, met to discuss the issue. The response that the workers got was disappointing since they were told bluntly that their salaries cannot be raised and that they won’t be changing the contacts. The workers just have to deal with these conditions or else they could be replaced.
The administration, it seems, has grown comfortable with the conveniently low prices that the one-man company SAMCO offers. This goes against the values that AUB preaches, and something needs to be done. A beneficial course of action would be to employ a vendor other than SAMCO and transfer all the current 600 or so employees to the new and improved vendor which, the administration should be sure, provides the workers with their basic rights.
The average worker should not be expected to face the brunt of the economic crisis especially when they are the most at risk. Safety nets should be provided by AUB to protect the men and women who keep our campus that we call home functioning.