Editor: Our friend John M Williams, currently working in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia as an English language instructor, and an former OBcean, sends an occasional post about life there. Here’s the latest.
by John M Williams / Special to the OB Rag / May 14, 2010
Let me set the stage. The school I work in is a remedial college designed as a feeder for King Saud University (KSU). My school is called the Preparatory Year Program (PYP). Students take courses in English, physics, chemistry, biology, math, IT and a group of business related subjects.
The organization is a little complex, but let me try. At the top is King Abdullah. Then comes the Ministry of Education. Next is KSU. KSU contracted with a Saudi company named Obekan. Obekan hired Bell, a United Kingdom-based English language teaching charitable trust associated with Cambridge University. Bell recruited teachers, created the administrative structure, and runs the school on a day to day basis. The role of Bell is rather like that of a middle manager; they have very little real power, but are the face of the organization to teachers and students.
About two months ago, someone, presumably a teacher, posted an email to all teachers griping about the inequities of the cover rota. Cover rota is Brit-speak for substitutes list. The author noted that the “brothers,” meaning dark skinned Americans or Brits who had either converted to Islam or had been raised in the religion and wore thobs, were favored and “never” appeared on the list.
The email bothered me because it seemed clear it was an effort to sow the seeds of discord between one group of teachers and another (though in practice, “the brothers” don’t constitute any sort of a recognizable group), and between some of the teachers and Bell itself; those things, and the obviously anonymzing signature of “Mr. Smith.”
More recently, everyone connected with the PYP, excluding administrators, cleaners, and security guards (that would include teachers of every subject, students, administrative assistants, technicians, and the food service guys) eagerly anticipated a week’s break scheduled to begin on April 17th, as listed on the annual academic calendar published at the beginning of the school year. I was certainly looking forward to it; a week to lay around, download music and films, watch some TV, sleep in, catch up on correspondence, and read. It would also be a week without the flurry of emails from multiple administrators telling us in minute detail how to proceed in this or that seemingly ever changing policy. Many guys had already purchased plane tickets, put down money to reserve hotel rooms, and made plans with family and friends. No one had an inkling that this traditional, though, apparently, non-contractual, holiday would not occur as scheduled or that there would be any problem getting paid for the week.
That is, no one had an inkling until three weeks before the vacation was scheduled to begin. At that point, KSU contacted PYP administrators with the news that teachers would be required to be on campus during that week.
Take a guess: (A) Every teacher was onboard; no problem; whatever you say; non-refundable tickets and deposits be damned. (B) All hell broke loose.
I mentioned earlier Mr. Smith because, even though at the time of his “brothers” email he seemed like a one-shot nut, following the cancellation announcement, a message from him appeared in the inbox of all English teachers (brothers included). He had, he said, created an anonymous email group which included us all. His intention, he said, was to provide a forum where interested teachers could anonymously post comments and opinions about the situation, and suggest responses or remedies for it.
This forum began operating on a Wednesday night, which is the end of the work week here. The emails began as a trickle, then he pace quickened. By Friday night, there had been about 200 comments.
Interestingly, given that this was an anonymous, teachers-only forum, Bell’s HR Manager put in his two cents.
The tone and content of the emails ranged from calm and reasonable to something appropriate for an old Hollywood film loosely based on the activities of the IRA. I asked whether anyone knew anything beyond what was obvious, namely that KSU had unilaterally canceled the vacation. “Why?” I wanted to know. “What are our rights? What are our obligations?” My last thought was that if, as was speculated, KSU was acting independently, then teachers, recruiters, administrators, Bell, and Obekan should all be allies. Others thought we should strike, sit-in, do a work slow down, sick out, fail to turn in attendance, have a group meeting on campus to determine a course of action. One guy took it upon himself to write a respectful petition explaining our grievances and, having asked us to read it, affixed our names to it before delivering it to the Dean. Only one guy said, “Count me out.” The more hot-blooded of the posters called him a scab and a coward. Threats were made. “I know who you are!” one said. One teacher included a closing to his email which hyphenated (in the way a drill sergeant would) the phrase, “En shala.” En shala means, “If Allah is willing.” It is used in the same way as one might say, “God willing, and the creeks don’t rise.”
There were also quite long exchanges about teacher’s rights under Saudi labor law and whether a Saudi company (Obekan) had the right to demand employee’s passports (Obekan did, and everyone who signed a contract with Bell complied.). Unfortunately, no one could say anything definitive about these issues.
The final email was again from Mr. Smith. This time he told how “gratified” he was by all that had been said (except for the few posts that didn’t rampage; he had his own list of the cowards).
When we returned to work on Saturday morning we were hustled into an impromptu mass meeting with the top Bell administrator, Dr. Abdullah. He told us that as a result of the content of the weekend’s emails (so much for secrecy) seven teachers had been suspended. He didn’t add that two had quit; we found that out later via the grapevine. He also said he had been working on a compromise with KSU since the cancellation had been announced.
A day or so later, Dr. Abdullah assembled us again to say that KSU had relented and would now allow those who had already purchased tickets to take the vacation without pay, and the rest of us would be expected to show up at school. He also added that our teachers’ email forum had almost wrecked his negotiations with KSU (Really?). Well, half a loaf anyway. Of course, those, like myself, who hadn’t spent money on airfare were a little miffed.
Then, Obekan decided that all Bell teachers could take the vacation and Obekan would foot the bill for three days of vacation, even though Obekan would not be recompensed by KSU, or they could come to work and get a week’s pay (which KSU would be covering). Hurray for Obekan! Sadly, as I said, I’m not contracted to Bell; my recruiter is another company whose acronym is ICEEL (International Company for English and E-Learning), and ICEEL wouldn’t pay anything for the week, unless we showed up at school ($750 for a week’s vacation in Riyahd? The garden spot?). Not only that, ICEEL wanted us to pay them what they would lose, in the event KSU wasn’t obligated to pay (meaning that the week off in Riyadh would now cost me $1500). Can I say, “CRAP!” So for a week, I got up, caught a cab, rode out to school, signed in, and chatted (about what a wonderful opportunity this is) or read, and then signed out. I got through four of Graham Greene’s novels.
Oh, and the suspended guys? All but two are now long gone. Mr. Hyphenate En Shala is still here, trying to find another job. He’ll have to leave if something doesn’t turn up this month. The other guy is the only one to survive; Mr. Respectful Petition is back at work.
But, hey! I am working.