Islam Marei’s voice cuts the silence of Giza’s empty streets, bringing back some of its pre-pandemic clamor. He plays the distinctive flute of cotton candy sellers, hoping to get the attention of the children who are now confined to their houses.
“The sight of children looking outside the window brings joy to my heart,” said 17-year-old Marei, who sells cotton candy on the street for a living. He started working when he was 13 to support his mother after his father died. He first worked for a “boss” who paid him LE20 (US$1.30) a day, and gave him supplies for the sweets.
Two years later, Marei had saved up enough money to buy his own cotton candy machine. By working for himself, he was able to support his mother and cover her medical expenses.
“Corona kills, but so does hunger,” Marei said. “That’s why I’m not afraid of corona. I’d rather be killed by corona than by hunger.”
There are over 10 million informal workers like Marei in Egypt, according to government estimates. While many of them continue to work because they cannot afford to stay home, the pandemic has undercut their livelihoods nonetheless.
Even with his sales cut in half, Marei still goes out to work every day. Before the pandemic, it took four or five hours of standing in front of the zoo, public gardens or schools to sell all the cotton candy he had for the day. Now, he roams the streets, and still can’t make as much as he did before.
The government allotted an LE500 ($32) monthly stipend for three months to help workers deal with the crisis, and asked them to sign up for the allowance through the Ministry of Manpower’s website. On April 13, the ministry began distributing the allowance to the 1.5 million people who were registered.
Mohamed Abdel Qader, secretary-general of the Informal Workers Union, which is independent of the state-affiliated Egyptain Trade Union Federation, says the allowance targets informal workers whose employers registered them with the Manpower Ministry. The beneficiaries include people who work in agriculture, irrigation, and construction as well as workers who hold the government’s “Aman” (Safety) life insurance policy. More than 2.3 million workers signed up for the policy via the “Hemaya” (Protection) campaign in 2018.
But the government’s current plan does not take into account the diversity of informal labor in the country, Abdel Qader said. Many laborers — street vendors and shoe shiners, for example — do not have an employer to register them.
Some employers refuse to register workers to avoid paying their share of social insurance, he said. This is the case for domestic workers and employees of cafes or other establishments who work without a contract.
Magdy al-Badawy, vice president of the trade union federation, says the Manpower Ministry has a special fund for informal workers’ pensions and special care benefits, financed by charging employers who work with the government three percent of their government-derived earnings.
The government intends to expand the fund as more workers are added to its database, Badawy said. The ministry plans to tap union donations, the LE100 billion ($6.3 billion) the government has allocated for coronavirus relief as well as the Tahya Masr fund, he added.
Badawy described the conditions of informal workers as “complicated.” Marei, the cotton candy seller, concurs. “I know nothing about the government’s allowance, and the government doesn’t know anything about me,” he said, explaining why he insists on working every day.
Meanwhile, Fatma Gamal, a mother of five, says her whole family has been put out of work because of the virus. “My son is a barber, but he stopped working because he and his customers are afraid of contracting the virus. My daughter is a hairdresser and is also not working. Their third brother used to work in a coffee shop but the boss told him to stay home,” she said.
“My husband drives a tuk tuk from seven in the morning to five in the afternoon because of the curfew — he barely makes LE70 ($4.4) a day,” said Gamal, who lives in Mostorod in the Daqahlia governorate, 30 kilometers north of Cairo.
Her husband is still working, but the money he makes isn’t enough. The family is still paying installments for the tuk tuk, she said. Tasaheel, a microfinance association owned by Ghabbour Auto from which the family had borrowed, is refusing to postpone the loan installments, she said.
At the time of the interview, Fatma’s family had signed up for the government allowance and was waiting to hear whether they qualified for payment.
The number of applicants for the allowance is low, given that the estimated number of informal laborers stands at 10 to 12 million.
Illiteracy and lack of internet access may be contributing to the low response rate. Abouda, a 37-year-old day laborer, says he’s unable to apply. “I can’t read or write, and I don’t have access to the internet; my phone is one of those with buttons and it doesn’t go online,” he said.
Abouda, who is from a village in Giza, supports three children in addition to his mother and father.
The shovel and the axe are his capital, he says. He’s been a day laborer for 17 years. Every day, he sits in Giza Square along with other workers, their tools in front of them to advertise their services: demolition, construction, digging, lifting or any other manual labor.
Abouda said he won’t heed the calls to stay home. “Who will feed the six souls I’m responsible for?” he says.
Brokers are taking advantage of illiterate workers like Abouda, Badawy said, by charging them money in exchange for helping them register online. In some cases, brokers withhold workers’ IDs to force them to split the allowance, he said.
“There’s been very little work since corona — people are worried we might be sick,” Abouda says. “I am afraid that things will stay like this for a long time.”
In its World Economic Outlook released earlier this month, the IMF predicts that coronavirus will have an extended impact on the global economy, projecting that unemployment in Egypt will rise from 8.9 percent in 2019, to 10.3 percent this year.
Meanwhile Abdel Qader, of the independent union, said informal workers’ problems require bold solutions. Society as a whole should support informal workers because they don’t have the luxury of staying home, which stifles all other efforts to slow down the spread of the pandemic, he added.
Abdel Qader suggests pooling donations from different professional, labor and agricultural unions toward helping informal workers, as well as speeding up the government’s vetting and registration process by relying on local committees which would include workers as well as union and government representatives.
Last week, the government launched a donation campaign called “Ahaleena” (Our People), encouraging private sector companies as well as individuals to use its website to donate to informal workers as well as lower income families in general.
If the government enforces a full lockdown, Abdel Qader says, employers must continue to pay full salaries to their workers, and later recollect it in installments of no more than LE100 a month.
“I stopped working for a while but when the money ran out I had to start again,” Um Mohamed, a 50-year-old domestic worker, says. She is worried about catching the virus from public transport or from the owners of the house where she works, and infecting her four children, her husband or mother-in-law. But after spending all her savings within two weeks, Um Mohamed, who is the family breadwinner, pleaded with her employer to go back to work. Her employer was also worried about infection but eventually agreed.
“What can I do?” she says. “People like me are in the hands of God.”