What The BBC Strike In Egypt Says About Local Wages And Press Freedom
BBC's office in Cairo is on strike for the third time in three months, demanding higher wages. The British broadcaster has long een able to recruit at lower rates because it could offer editorial freedom that is difficult to find in Egypt.
This is the staff’s third strike in as many months. They are protesting against management discrimination against Egyptian nationals who are paid at rates far below their foreign colleagues in Cairo and are struggling as the cost of living soars.
Staff at other regional BBC offices had their salaries raised amid similar economic events, the staff say, yet the BBC’s administration has refused to hike wages.
But wages for BBC Cairo office staff were low even before the current crisis, set at rates far beneath other major foreign press organizations, former staff members and journalistic sources told Mada Masr.
Instead, the broadcaster was able to recruit on the basis of an unspoken deal: you accept the low salary, but in turn, you receive a quality professional education that helps you toward a better-paid career option afterward; and, in the meantime, you enjoy editorial freedom that is difficult to find in Egypt’s constrained media landscape.
“It is known among those who worked for or cooperated with the BBC office in Cairo that their wages are lower than other foreign press," the journalist source explained. "IT is treated as a vocational school, a starting point for journalists to obtain greater opportunities in other places in the future, many times the salary, because they are a graduate of the BBC.”
But, as the sources noted, shifts in the political and economic lines delimiting the media over the past decade have rendered this deal all but null.
Now, BBC journalists find themselves in the opposite position, with the outlet’s outsider status more likely a disincentive to potential employers. Their association with the BBC means that “many parties consider them troublesome,” says Journalists Syndicate chair Khaled al-Balshy, who has been meditating on behalf of the strikers.
It was simply the number one or two press institution in the world.
Two former staff members spoke about how they imagined the BBC when they first started working for the Cairo bureau. “It’s the biggest media institution. Anyone who just graduated would want to work there,” says the first former worker, a refrain which the second picks up, saying, “it was simply the number one or two press institution in the world, in English or Arabic. And it follows its own unique school of journalism.”
“I joined them young. I was ‘made in the BBC.’ I was taught writing, TV, coverage, how to plan, prepare for and implement it, how to write news in Arabic and English, and how to shoot and edit video,” the second former worker says, recalling his pride in working alongside local and foreign reporters who worked for the broadcaster like former Middle East correspondent Jeremy Bowen and BBC Sports presenter Mimi Fawaz.
Both former staff members also speak to the editorial freedom they enjoyed at the bureau. “We had no one telling us what we’re allowed to do or not. The way of constructing a news story itself allowed us to work without specific instructions. There is no pressure from a state or a businessman,” says the first worker.
This felt important at pivotal turning points over the last decade, such as the years of coup and regime change in 2013 and 2014. According to the second former staff member, “when the rest of the media was solely covering the war on terror, we were the only ones reporting on the Muslim Brotherhood or what happened to the revolutionary youth. I don’t think any Arabic-speaking outlet had that space, especially in reporting on the human rights and minorities files.”
“We were the only Arabic-speaking org during the June 30 protests covering both Tahrir Square and Rabaa,” says the first former worker. “We covered Rabaa from June 22, 2013, and until after the dispersal.”
“Journalism in Egypt is in crisis because there is no independent journalism. BBC, Mada Masr and Al-Manassa are maybe the only organizations that retained their editorial independence compared to the media in the country,” the second worker believes.
But how could the broadcaster deliver on its unspoken promise to teach vocational skills, when nowhere was accepting the graduates? As the media landscape came increasingly under the hand of the state over the last 10 years and dozens of journalists were detained, the exercise of editorial freedoms came with a price. The state launched recurring propaganda campaigns against foreign press outlets for their reporting on Egypt — with the BBC among the top few usual targets.
Staff sometimes feared they would be subject to retaliation for their coverage. According to the first former BBC worker, “there are several known cases where reporting by the institution made staff feel unsafe, most prominently the Zubaida crisis.” The source is referring to a 2018 state attack on BBC, after the broadcaster published a report by journalist Orla Guerin detailing stories of torture, forced disappearances and activist arrests.
BBC Cairo workers previous strike over low wages and discrimination, June 14.
Justifications and deflections
For the Cairo staff, despite the expertise they’ve gained, they are not met with open arms when they turn to the local market.
“It was difficult for people who were at the BBC during the Zubaida period, for example, to move on to local media jobs, almost impossible,” the first worker explains.
But while the chances to leave the Cairo office diminished, salaries remained as low as they had always been. “BBC salaries in Egypt and all over the world are lower than other foreign press organizations. There’s always a stigma that follows the BBC around,” the same source notes.
Devaluations of the Egyptian pound have further exacerbated the wage issue.
Since 2016, successive devaluations of the Egyptian pound have further exacerbated the wage issue. “We drowned when the first devaluation happened in 2016. It was difficult,” a third former staff member, the first former staff member, tells Mada Masr. As the second source also notes, they, and many other staff members across different departments, left the institution for financial reasons.
“During the financial crisis in 2008, the Cairo staff at the time negotiated being paid in pounds instead of US dollars. Salaries were modified in 2013 and things remained stable until the first devaluation in 2016. There were demands for a raise in the following year, and they did raise it but it wasn’t large. And since then there have been calls to upgrade the salaries,” the first former employee explains.
According to Balshy, and staffers who spoke previously to Mada Masr, salary rates for Egyptian nationals working with the British outlet have not been adjusted since 2020, failing to account for the depreciation in the value of the Egyptian pound by over 50 percent against the dollar paired with skyrocketing inflation reaching its highest rate in five years.
Foreign nationals working from the Cairo office, however, get paid in US dollars and receive much higher rates.
A fourth former staff member says that top management at the BBC has responded to any complaints about salaries with various justifications and deflections.
“One time we asked them to raise the salaries and they responded by saying that they care about our mental health,” the fourth former worker noted. “They would tell us to be thankful for having healthcare, which everyone in the business has, and that at least we have job stability at BBC.”
But, as the fourth worker points out, job stability at BBC is not what it used to be. The UK public organization, funded by TV licensing fees in its home country, has undergone budget cuts and restructuring that have seen several active sections of the BBC World Services shut down in January to save GBP500 million annually, with nearly 400 people laid off in the process and the BBC Arabic radio station going off air on January 27 after 85 years of service.
Staff first requested in March 2020 that managers reconsider how wages are calculated, noting the internal wage discrepancies in the Cairo office, but were dismissed. The issue was brought up again this year, amid the current financial crisis, and intense negotiations began in February with Balshy joining in to mediate. The constant dismissal from London finally led the staffers to escalate. The upcoming strike will follow a one-day strike in mid-June and another three-day one in July.
Balshy noted in a press conference at the conclusion of the second strike that while the BBC’s Istanbul and Beirut offices faced similar financial crises in their respective countries over the past years the wages of the staff there were ultimately adjusted for inflation.
But all rounds of talks so far, whether before or between the strike, have led nowhere. “It is always not a real negotiation — they come to present their financial policy and leave,” Balshy tells Mada Masr.
Balshy, who negotiated with the BBC representatives coming from London during the last round on July 27, noted they tried to dissuade the staff members from letting the syndicate negotiate on their behalf.
No sufficient financial compensation
According to press and media regulations, the BBC is designated as a TV organization, which means they are not required to be syndicate members, the journalistic source following the strike said. This put limitations on the syndicate’s mediation, as the broadcaster’s Cairo staff is thus “not subject to the syndicate’s protective umbrella with regard to demands, wages, and other protest or escalation procedures,” the source noted.
And now, instead of the BBC’s rarified status acting as an incentive to work there, it is now a disincentive to make trouble. A staff member noted to Mada Masr that managers were making indirect reminders to employees of the situation in which they have been stuck for a while: the job opportunities are scarce, and security authorities’ perceptions of them make opportunities at the domestic press even more scarce.
The talent curve is leaning downwards.
“The staff is paying for a situation that the BBC created. They pay a price after adhering to its editorial policy and producing different work, then [the BBC] comes to put pressure on them, so they pay double,” Balshy said.
In Balshy’s opinion, the BBC administration is now taking advantage of the existing conditions of the press in Egypt, including wages, the economic crisis, and the freedom of expression situation, to put pressure on the employees. “They make claims about journalistic ideals and freedom of expression. Is economic security not part of being able to have freedom of expression?” Balshy asked.
The first worker, who has moved on to an opportunity abroad, left the BBC Cairo bureau worried about how the chronic salaries have pushed many to leave the place anyway and affected its production. “Salaries were not enough to retain people. That means the talent curve is leaning downwards, as they cannot afford to replace them with others at the same level.”
“Production was definitely affected. They cannot retain the people they want to be the future of the office because they cannot offer them sufficient financial compensation to allow them to do good journalistic work. They are turning it into a repellent environment,” the source added.
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