Mona, a single mother of five children has joined one of the ride-hailing platforms in Egypt several years ago as a part-time worker to support her family. She complains that the working conditions are deteriorating, and that the platform is biased when dealing with complaints from drivers. She shared an unpleasant incident when she was attacked while being in her car. “Two people attacked me when I was in my car and stole my bag, one of them placed a knife near my neck, I felt like I was about to die,” she adds. Surprisingly, the platform did not offer any compensation for her lost items, or any form of support and their only concern was if a passenger was with her in the car.
Mona’s story is just one among many other stories of gig workers in Egypt who share similar grievances. While Egypt’s growing platform economy is much needed to create job opportunities for many, documentation of workers’ rights and fair working conditions still needs to be improved in this mostly informal sector.
In a recent published report by the Fairwork project [a project run out of the Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford, and the Berlin Social Science Centre] in collaboration with the Access to Knowledge for Development Center (A2K4D) of the American University in Cairo’s School of Business and other global research centers, the working conditions in the platform gig economy are examined with the aim to help improve the working conditions for workers in this sector.
The structure of Egypt’s economy and its informal sector
For many decades, Egypt, the largest state in the Arab region by population and third by economy, has depended on external resources, mainly oil, the Suez Canal, workers’ remittances and tourism as its main sources of GDP.
This lack of economic diversification led to limited growth in job creation and resulted in high rates of unemployment especially for women and youth. In 2019 the estimated unemployment rates among young people and the educated were 26.54 percent and 22.14 percent respectively. These are significant figures taking into consideration that 60 percent of the Egyptian population is under the age of 30 years. Having said that, the informal economy has continued to rise to reach almost 50 percent of GDP in 2019.
This Egyptian economic scene coupled with the fast augmentation of connectivity and the widespread of internet usage following 2011 uprising, provided ample opportunity for numerous digital labor platforms to enter the market and fill needed gaps in different sectors such as transportation, education, domestic services and courier services. Despite being mostly of an informal nature, these platforms have created jobs and provided opportunities for masses.
The gig economy and the Fairwork framework
Gig economy has many definitions but in essence it refers to a labor market of freelancers or short-term jobs or “gigs” where organizations hire independent workers on a non-permanent basis.
In this report Fairwork evaluates the working conditions of seven of Egypt’s location-based digital labor platforms and ranks them based on five main criteria. According to Fairwork, platforms complying with these criteria are considered ‘fair’ employers.
The first principle is fair pay, which stipulates that workers should earn a decent income, at least equal to the minimum wage after taking into account work-related costs. Second is fair conditions, which addresses the presence of policies to protect workers against risks arising from work processes. The third principle is fair contracts, to ensure that all contracts are subject to local law and free from any clauses which unreasonably exclude the platform’s liability, irrespective of the workers’ employment status. Fourth is fair management, which entails documented policies that ensure equity and fairness for employees as well as clear channels of communication where workers can appeal management decisions. Fifth is fair representation, where workers have the right to organize in collective bodies, and platforms should be prepared to cooperate and negotiate with them.
Fairness rating results
Based on these five criteria for scoring, each platform is given a fairness rating out of ten (see figure one below). FilKhedma, a platform offering a variety of home repair services, leads the 2021 table with five points, while Mrsool (a courier delivery platform) and Orcas (a tutoring platform) are tied in second place with four out of ten points. Next comes Swvl (a bus hailing platform), scoring three points. Talabat (a delivery platform), Mongez (a courier-delivery platform), and Uber (a ride-hailing platform) scored one point each.
The scoring process for these platforms is based on multiple data sources including desk research, evidence shared with the researchers by the platforms, and semi-structured interviews with both workers and management from each platform.
Regarding the individual scores for each principle, in only three of the seven platforms featured in the report (FilKhedma, Orcas, and Swvl) were workers’ gross pay at or above the minimum wage after subtracting work-related costs. As for the fair conditions principle, five of the platforms managed to demonstrate that they take some action to protect workers from work-related risks. For instance, Mongez and Mrsool, both courier-delivery platforms, have adequate policies in place to deal with malicious orders. Mrsool also has an accident reimbursement system that covers road accidents and associated recovery costs. While FilKhedma, the home-services platform, has a detailed employee safety manual and also offers related to its workers.
As for the fair contracts principle, only three platforms (FilKhedma, Orcas, and Swvl) were given the first point for fair contracts. The same goes for the fair management principle where only three platforms (FilKhedma, Mrsool, and Talabat) showed that they provide clear processes for decisions concerning their workers, including an established procedure for workers to appeal disciplinary action. As for the last principle of fair representation, only one platform (Mrsool) out of seven had some form of collective worker voice mechanism through regular meetings where workers are allowed to collectively voice their concerns.
Multilayered scoring for fairer jobs
On how this scoring system works the report explained that each principle is divided into two thresholds, one basic and the other is advanced. Each threshold specifies the evidence required for a platform to receive a given point. For instance, if we analyzed principle three of fair contracts, the basic threshold is awarded if the platform provides evidence that they have comprehensible and transparent terms and conditions that are accessible to workers and that the latter are able to understand, agree to and access at all times. In addition, workers must have a legal option if the platform violates any of those conditions.
On the other hand, a platform receives the advanced point under the same principal, when it confirms that they don’t impose inequitable contract terms upon workers where the latter carry a greater risk for engaging in such contracts. In other words, to be awarded this advanced score, platforms must prove that the risks and liabilities of engaging in the work are equally shared between parties with no employer bias. The advanced threshold can only be awarded if the platform satisfied the basic threshold.
Only three out of the seven platforms surveyed were awarded the basic threshold in the fair contracts principle (FilKhedma, Orcas and Swvl) while none of the platforms received the advanced point since all platforms have a phrase in their terms and conditions limiting or excluding liability on the part of the platform, thus, not fulfilling the evidence required for this threshold.
Gig platforms and the way forward
Gig platforms are mostly local enterprises created by young entrepreneurs and have a great potential to provide job opportunities for many unemployed individuals. Having said that, Fairwork is keen on working with them to model fair work practices for the larger business sector in Egypt. Fairwork identified four main pathways for continued improvement in Egypt’s gig economy as illustrated in the figure below.
First, Fairwork plans to keep working directly with platforms on organizing data of their improved performance and consistently maintaining the positive changes. . One good example for this collaboration, is the adoption by FilKhedma and Orcas of an anti-discrimination policy.
The second avenue for change is working with consumers. Since consumers represent the end target of any supply chain, when given enough information they can be very powerful elements of change. In other words, availing the Fairwork ratings to consumers will enable them to make conscious choices of which platforms to use. Thus, consumers can be a pressure group that will make platforms more attentive to their working conditions and scores.
The third pathway for change will have to involve policymakers and government in the form of advocacy efforts to extend legal protection to all platform workers irrespective of their employment status. Last but not least, the fourth pathway is through workers and any organizations that represent them. Workers and their needs have been at the heart of the Fairwork research.
As this report represents the first Fairwork annual rating for Egyptian platforms, there is an ample opportunity for further work with these platforms to improve conditions for gig workers in Egypt. This year’s scores show that some platforms give more attention to their workers’ needs than others. Whether the researched platforms scored high in fair pay or scored low in fair management, there is nothing inevitable about accepting low wages, unsafe working conditions, unfair contracts, and lack of workers’ representation as the standard practice in the gig economy.
There is no reasonable basis for denying platform workers of labor rights that are enjoyed by their formally employed counterparts. This is a first step towards more involvement of stakeholders and more advocacy for gaining additional labor rights for workers in the gig economy, an economy which can no longer be ignored, being an important contributor to job creation and a key player in the whole Egyptian economy.