The Consequences of Informality
On my way home from work every day I walk through the intersection of 26th of July street with Ramses street which is, in my humble opinion, one of the noisiest spots in the world. It hosts a microbus station and an ambulance service station, at least two of those traveling advertising vans are constantly parked there to sell Vodafone and Etisalat sim cards, there’s at least 10 salespeople sitting next to their spots on the sidewalk where they sell random things like socks and little packets of glue, in addition to the enormous amount of traffic that passes through the intersection 24 hours a day. So when somebody is asked to pass through that intersection — on a bike — carrying three trays of bread — on his head — he should probably think twice. Except he probably doesn’t have a choice when his livelihood depends on getting that bread to its destination.
That’s what I witnessed a few days ago, and what I’ve witnessed many times in the past: A man with tears in his eyes as he stares panicked at the trays of bread he was balancing on his head upside down on the ground after he was just hit by a taxi.
The positive aspect is that while in the past the driver would immediately jump out of his car and start yelling at the bread messenger for not paying attention, this time the driver immediately jumped out of his car and started patting the distraught guy on the shoulder and picking the bread off the ground. A few passersby joined in and the next thing I know we were almost 10 people picking the bread off the ground and placing it back onto the trays. Within a few minutes the guy was back on his bike and on his way. Whether this is an example of the revolution bringing out the best in Egyptians, or just a coincidence of a bunch of good-hearted people being at the same place at the same time, is unknown. Either way, it was a beautiful example of Egyptians coming together for no reason other than to help someone in a difficult situation.
But I couldn’t get out of my head that look of panic on the guy’s face when he dropped the bread. Clearly the consequence of him losing any of the bread would be either a deduction in his pay – which is already next to nothing – and quite possibly even getting beat up for not doing his job right.
And he’s not alone. There are millions of people like him all across Egypt. According to the 2006 government labour market survey, informal wage workers constitute around 67% of total wage workers in Egypt. These people’s working hours, wages, and working conditions are all left to the whims of their employers. They have no contracts, no benefits like medical or social insurance, and if they are not in the good graces of their employers they can be thrown on the street in an instant. No questions asked.
For example, the doorman at one of my friend’s buildings makes EGP 400 a month, which is less than my last phone bill. The one in the building next to him makes EGP 200 a month. The difference is solely because the residents of one building are slightly more generous than the other. In exchange they clean the entire building, run errands for the residents, wash the residents’ cars, and guard the building at night. They have no contracts and can be kicked out of the building at any time, they can’t take any time off unless the residents allow it, they have no health insurance in case they or their family members get sick, and they have no pension plan which means they don’t have the luxury of retiring on their 50th or 60th or even 70th birthday (I’ve seen doormen older than that).
This model applies to garbage collectors, informal salespeople, construction workers, drivers, and many, many more groups. The revolution hasn’t affected the tough circumstances these people live in. And the only way their circumstances can be changed is if they come together and have their own revolution. I think the Arab revolutions have proven that change never comes from abroad, it has to come from within. I’m hoping that informal workers start unionizing so they can have a voice, and force people to listen for a change.