On the 16th of November 2021, the Crous cafétéria at Cité universitaire was closed due to a strike. A resident sheds light on the deplorable working conditions of staff and their presence and dedication during the pandemic, calling to action for recognition and support from the residents of Cité universitaire.
An outstanding service for students
My name is Alexis. I study political science and I live in Cité universitaire de Paris. Daily, after I’m done with classes and back from school, I keep the same routine: at 4 p.m, I take a break from studying at the CIUP library and I go for a hot beverage. I meet Catherine* who serves at the CROUS cafeteria in Cité. Catherine is energetic and fervent; She prepares and serves my hot coffee in a flash. Sometimes, I run into Cynthia: we chat briefly about her weekend walks, our unusual hairstyles, sunshine and rain. We laugh, and I leave.
At 7:30 pm, the second act takes off: It’s dinner time, again at the Crous restaurant. There, I first meet Rayan, who manages the influx of residents before the entrance to the dining hall, in order to respect regulatory measures due to the pandemic. There are hundreds of us every evening; the hall of the Maison Internationale is always full. I tend to share football highlights with Rayan out of habit. “This week, PSG won,” I’d say to him.
Afterwards, I enter the dining hall. I pick up clean cutlery. Who cleaned them? I don’t know any of the dishwashers. I only know that they work in the basement, ten metres below us. Moving on, I pick up my plate; I don’t know the names of the chefs either. But I am familiar with their faces. One of them, a young man with a broad smile that can be seen behind his mask, is in charge of the grill; he prepares the fries and steaks. The other, a little older, quiet, is in charge of the vegetarian dishes. When it’s my turn, I pick my meal, say thanks briefly, and proceed to pick up dessert. The desserts are served in ramekins which I guess must be prepared by careful hands everyday. Whose careful hands make them? I have no idea. I can only see a tiny part of the iceberg. All those who work in the basement, in the shadows, before and after our arrival, remain invisible.
Finally, I get to checkout where the cashiers, Dominique and Leila, are, at parallel posts. I greet them, pay and go on to sit and eat. Ideally, at this time, I should forget these pressing questions in my head, bury them, and enjoy the dinner. Usually, I am seated alone, and I try my best to think of something else. Yet soon enough, I am, again, thinking about all the people I’ve just met. Catherine, Cynthia, Rayan, Dominique, Leïla, and all those who work for me, but whom I don’t see. What are their names? Where do they live? How many of them are there? Who is going to pick up the tray that I will put on the food tray conveyor when I finish my meal? I only know a few names and about ten faces.
The plight of Crous employees
Lost in my thoughts, I drift… Suddenly, on this occasion, Leila and Dominique call out to me. It is quite unusual. I have never seen them leave their workstations. Here, I see them at my table, looking concerned.
Leïla: “Alexis, you’ve been here for a year now, right?”
Me: “Yes Leïla, that’s about right.
Dominique: “How well do you know the current residents of the houses?”
Me : “Fairly well. I am quite involved in the resident life at Cité”.
Leila: “Then, we have to speak. We need the support of you all, the residents. We have reached our wit’s end. The Crous management doesn’t care about us. We were the only Crous that remained open during the pandemic. We had thrice as much work in that period. It was like working in a real assembly line, and what did we get for it? 120 euros. They gave us breadcrumbs. We are the least paid Crous in France. In other regions where the cost of living is lower, they are better paid. Is this right?
Dominique adds: “On Sundays, we don’t even get paid double. Before, we were. Now they give us a day off on Monday, so they don’t have to pay us more. In the end, in net terms, for September, I got €1270. We get a miserable salary. Is this right?”
In shock, I stammer…I am stunned, appalled. I need to digest this call for help, this call for solidarity. I need to understand, but first, I have to take a step back. I spend days reflecting on the situation, and then I make a firm decision to investigate, to speak truth to power. I am bolstered by the conviction that it is high time we took action for the sake of those who serve us.
So I listen to the Crous employees for several days, ask them questions, get information, write and think. I learn that most of the employees earn just the minimum wage. They come from the other end of Île de France. Many are on fixed-term contracts, which they have been renewing year after year for five or even six years. Is this right?
Injustice and strike action
Their union asked for a 400€ bonus this year: after tough negotiations, this bonus was obtained… only for those on permanent contracts. This means that almost half of the employees of the Crous de la Cité Universitaire will not benefit from this 400€. Some were even threatened with non-renewal of their fixed-term contracts if they took part in the strike, which happened on the 16th of November 2021. Is this right? Negotiations are underway for the allocation of this bonus, but there is no guarantee at present that all employees (permanent, fixed-term as well as those on civil service contracts) will receive it in an equitable manner.
Beyond the demands for better remuneration, it is the day-to-day performance of their work that has become difficult: “We lack equipment and staff”, Cynthia once told me. “Here, we often work for two people. For example, the lift in the dining hall: normally, the dish washers send the lift back to us with trolleys. It’s broken down and has been for a long time. Me, with my 52 kilos, my back is taking a big hit. This week, I haven’t touched the cash register once with all the trips back and forth, even though my job title is “cashier-waitress”. Is this right?”
After all these exchanges, I decide that inorder to amplify this call to action, I need the support of the residents of the Cité Universitaire, to know if they share the same feeling of gratitude towards those who allow us to have a decent meal for only 3.30€ daily. After all, they are the ones who have been providing us with food since the beginning of the year, including during the pandemic. They are the ones who prepared our meals before we took them to eat in our residences, when we could no longer eat in the canteen at the peak of the epidemic. They are the ones we call “first on the rope”, who do all the work behind the scenes, take the RER very early in the morning, in the dark and the cold. They are the ones who come to work in Paris, but who, for the most part, cannot afford to benefit from the city.
I see the Cité Universitaire as an ecosystem, made up of people who are connected to each other: if these women and men can’t take it anymore, we will feel the effects. And we are already feeling them. During my investigation, Dominique once told me: “There are mornings, Alexis, when you see me looking grim and unwelcoming. But I think it’s quite normal, given our working conditions. I want to get out of here. There’s a lack of recognition too. How many times has the management met us to congratulate us during the COVID? Never. All we ask for is the slightest recognition.”
A call for greater recognition
I shared these thoughts with other residents of Cité universitaire. To my pleasant surprise, there was an outpour of support from residents across all houses. The message was acknowledged and validated, boosting our commitment. Beyond the “benefit” that we, the students, would get from an upgrade of the working conditions of Crous employees, this is the time for us to loudly proclaim our support, independently of our interests as students. To lose a part of this ecosystem is to lose a part of ourselves. To lose Catherine, to lose Cynthia, to lose Rayan, to lose Dominique, to lose Leïla, is to lose a part of the Cité U. The Cité U is us, it’s them, it’s all those who keep this prestigious place alive.
It is time for recognition to be given to those who keep things running on a daily basis. We students received some support during the pandemic, a pandemic that revealed and exacerbated the precariousness and distress of students. For the most part, we bent, but did not break. We resisted, and this is partly thanks to these people. Has their fundamental role been mentioned enough? Have we thanked them with enough dignity and warmth?
It is high time that we restored dignity to the work experience of Crous staff, that they are able to benefit from an increase in their salaries, from a bonus of 400€ applied to all, whether they are on fixed-term contracts, permanent contracts or civil service contracts. It is high time we thanked them intentionally and affirmed our full and sincere support.
The call is out, and we students will respond. Hundreds of students from the Cité U, dozens of residence committees have shown their support. So, we in turn are launching this call for general mobilisation. In the next few days, we will write to the General Delegate, we will write to the Minister of Higher Education and we will bring this question to student unions at the national level. We believe that we have a say, and that the authorities of the Cité Universitaire also have a say. Of course, the Crous depends on the Ministry of Higher Education, but it is well and truly inserted in the ecosystem of the Cité U. Our representative bodies must take this issue on board. What would the Cité U be without them?
Ignoring this call to action would be to deny the link that unites us with all those we interact with at the Cité Universitaire. The Crous is a central place, the hub of the Cité Universitaire: it is a place of conviviality, of coworking in the afternoon, of meetings and exchanges. It is high time we restored prestige to the precious work of Catherine, Cynthia, Rayan, Dominique and Leïla. To the dish washers in the basement. To all those we do not see but on whom we depend.
An ecosystem that relies entirely on the effort and toil of grossly underpaid workers
So if Catherine, Cynthia, Rayan, Dominique, and Leila get to read this article, I would like them to know this: We do not wish to see you leave. To see you replaced by new staff who aren’t yet exposed to the underbelly of this ecosystem, and who would likely get to a point of distress in turn if things do not change. We will support you. This is only the beginning, but I have a narrow conviction that there are thousands of us who will hear this call to action. We will respond. It is about time we got to the root of the problem at hand, in Cité Universitaire, and then hopefully everywhere else. Spread the word, because, as Leïla told me, “there are other Crous in the same boat. It’s the same everywhere.”
Today, we advocate for the needs and demands of Crous staff. Perhaps, tomorrow, we will further amplify the voices of the staff who clean our residences, those who maintain our park or who look after our security. Now is the time to shine the light on the demands of those who cater to our welfare in Cité.
The Cité Internationale Universitaire de Paris, an ecosystem that relies entirely on the effort and toil of grossly underpaid workers.
Dear Crous staff, we are with you! Dear Crous employees, you have our full and sincere support!
This is what’s right to us.
A petition has been launched : https://chng.it/7GQSTttSWz
Alexis Aron, resident of the cité universitaire de Paris
*For ethical reasons and to protect their jobs, we have anonymised the names mentioned and created fictitious characters. The investigation was conducted with attention and rigour. The demands were faithfully transcribed and are shared by the vast majority of staff members.
This text is a carte blanche which reflects the opinion of the author and does not necessarily reflect the views or positions of the newspaper Cité unie.