Behind each success-story in any field, there are always those forgotten soldiers of the industry. These are the men and women that people just do not hear about, who work in silence and get paid a diminutive amount of money and amazingly enough, never complain.
In any industry, the most talked about faction includes high executives and top management: architects in ivory towers. It is a rarity that anyone hears of the laborers responsible for the major tasks of any sector. As such, at times, it is our obligation as journalists to put the spot light on them.
The above is not just a flowery introduction, but rather the fundamental essence of this reportage because what follows in effect is a discussion with and around the unknown workers of the petroleum sector. The task at hand is gas station workers. The men who wave us into our spots in order to fuel our cars; who endlessly labor without neither any recognition nor even others’ knowledge of how their lives are lived or the problems they face.
As a start, I tired talking with some gas station workers at a large internationally renowned gas station, but they rejected the idea of being interviewed. Comically enough, they thought I was working for the Social Insurance Agency. After they were assured that I was a journalist they started warming up to me and they gave me an obscure meeting time at night. When I asked them to justify this odd meeting time, they told me that late at night the gas station is usually empty with only a few customers. One of the workers stated that their daily working hours range from 8 to 12 hours of continuous work.
Mohamed Said, a gas station worker who has been working for five years said, “I have been suffering a lot from standing all day without taking any breaks. Sometimes when there is a heavy workload, I do not have enough time to even eat. To solve this problem, sometimes my coworkers and I eat during working hours quickly.”
Another worker named Ayman Mohamed talked about the obstacles that he and his coworkers face in the gas station. He said that there is a massive amount of workers who do not have any insurance or stable permanent contracts, which threatens their livelihood because they can be fired at anytime.
Fouad Mahmoud, another worker said, “Despite the fact that most people believe that the petroleum sector offers the highest salaries; gas station workers are the enslaved working class. At the same turn, we are the ones who work hard on delivering petroleum products and its derivatives.”
My curiosity and my genuine concern over those workers encouraged me to further explore this specific type of employees; thus, I decided to search for another gas station. I finally found yet another international gas station, which is situated on the Corniche Helwan road; my choice of gas station was by no means arbitrary. There was a very clear reason as to why I choose this particular gas station. I noticed a group of workers sitting aside the road resting, so I thought to myself, this would be the perfect time for me to interview them.
Fifteen year old Adel Hamdy told me that as a gas station worker, he takes L.E.100 a month. To be honest, I could not believe that figure, but he insisted that this was his monthly salary and that the gas station owner mainly depends on the tips that gas station workers take from customers as a means of salary for his employees.
Hamdy added, “This salary does not fulfill my needs, including daily transportation and food. I mainly depend on the tips, which has become quite unstable after the rise in gas prices.” Hamdy mentioned that he left school due to the high tuition fees which his family could no longer afford. Adding insult to injury, because of his young age his employment options are restricted. He cannot work officially in the gas station, so whenever an inspector or social insurance employer comes, he hides.
Our conversation was interrupted by Mohamed Lotfy, who turned out to be the Head of Personnel. He began to divulge all the secrets of the trade, which he had inherited from his father; he began working along side his father at the age of five. Needless to say, his personal experience had earned him an impressive portfolio of knowledge about gas station work. Lotfy stated that he attained high credentials, which include a BA in Commerce, but this did not stop him from working in the gas station.
Explaining the way tips are distributed within the gas station, Lotfy stated that each gas station has its own technique. There are two methods; the “Individual System” by which the worker takes all the tips he gets from the consumer for himself and the second method which is the “Company System” by which all workers combine their tips and distribute them equally among each other. Lotfy added that they used to apply the second method, but this caused several problems among the workers and so was removed and replaced with the Individual one.
Concerning the process of establishing a gas station in Egypt, Lotfy elaborated that businessmen buy the trademark of an international company, which is responsible for the construction of the gas station. On the part of the businessman, he installs the appropriate equipments for the delivery of fuel to the end user. For four years, profit is shared between the businessman and the international company. He mentioned that the cost for each gas station differs. One may cost LE 8 million, while another may cost LE 20 million. But, that is all recovered soon, since according to Lotfy, “gas stations usually have a high profit turnout.” Giving the gas station owner in which he works as an example, Lotfy stated that the extremely rich businessman started out as a meager gas seller and then bought one gas station; afterwards he bought 14 gas stations.
Back again to Lotfy, he started out as a normal gas station worker and was then promoted to Head of Personnel; a position which he intends to keep for just another three years due to the risk and health hazards involved in the occupation such as diseases associated with the lungs and feet. Currently, and until he retires to a better job, he is in charge of receiving the gas tanks that fill the station every three days with 50 thousand liters of gas. He then inspects the type of gas (whether it is pure or mixed with water). He said that he could differentiate between fuels by their colors; for example, 80 fuel has a red color and it is for 90 piasters; 90 fuel has a green color and is for 130 piasters; 92 fuel has a blue color and is worth 140 piasters; finally there is 95 fuel which has a white color with a bluish hue and it is for 175 piasters. Lotfy also has the most important of all tasks, which is being in charge of the gas station employees’ salaries and also communicating daily revenues of the station to the corporate accountant.
Lotfy concluded by restating all the problems that gas station employees face in Egypt. Such problems include but are not limited to the lack of health insurance and the absence of a comprehensive law that ensures their labor rights. And that is, in a very narrow perspective based on only a few gas stations within Greater Cairo, the world-life of a gas station employee.
Editor’s Note: The opinions in this piece do not reflect the opinions of Egypt Oil & Gas. As with all other sections of this paper however, we do welcome comments, suggestions, and corrections. If anyone would like to respond to this piece by all means do. There is nothing we aim more towards than an open discussion over the real issues that surround our industry. Finally, please note that the names of the employees mentioned in this piece have been changed to protect their identity.
By Rasha Azab
Translated by Sarah RashdanDownload