x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

For Cairenes, longer hours, but little reward

An international survey of 73 cities ranks Cairo as top for the number of hours worked by inhabitants.

For Hassan Sabit Mohammed, 24, making industrial soap is just one of four jobs.
For Hassan Sabit Mohammed, 24, making industrial soap is just one of four jobs.

CAIRO // Hassan Sabit Mohammed was tired. The day before he worked as a security and maintenance supervisor at Cairo University from 7am until 1pm. After a two-hour break, he worked the same job for a different company at a newspaper office until 6pm. Then he opened his newspaper and snack stand at 9pm, where he worked until 2am. The next day, he did it all again, just as he has done six days each week since his father died four years ago and left Mr Mohammed, 24, with full financial responsibility for his mother, school-age sister, wife and young son.

"There is no other option," he said. "Either that, or all our lives will be in trouble." It is a gruelling schedule, Mr Mohammed admitted, but in Cairo, where unemployment is high, wages are low and competition for jobs is fierce, his is a familiar lifestyle. Although much has been said about the unemployment problem among Egypt's youth - 16.9 per cent of young people were unemployed in 2006, about twice the national average - those who do have work tend to labour long hours.

The average Cairene works 2,373 hours every year, according to a survey published last month by UBS Bank, which ranked Cairo at the top of its list of work hours in 73 cities surveyed worldwide. "I think the major reason in Egypt is a severe competition over jobs, which, because of the large surplus labour pool that is kind of pressing down on labour conditions, that allows employers to extend the work day," said Raqui Assaad, an expert on the Egyptian labour market and a professor of planning and public affairs at the University of Minnesota. "It's kind of a classic Marxist estimation in a sense, but it needs to apply here."

Work hours for the average Egyptian increased by about two hours per week, or five per cent, between 1998 and 2006, said Mr Assaad, who pointed to his own labour statistics collected in 2006. Yet Egypt remains a country of low earners. For Mr Mohammed's part, between his four jobs and 87 hours of work each week (he also works a three-hour shift at a soap factory on Fridays), he takes home about 1,050 Egyptian pounds (Dh697) each month.

While it is difficult to pinpoint the macroeconomic cause of Egypt's unique drudgery, Mr Assaad said the longer work hours may be a symptom of the country's improving private sector, which helped the Egyptian economy grow by about seven per cent each year between 2006 and 2008. "When there is a recovery in the economy, you would expect that the hours of work would go up without the actual number of employees going up. That's because employers are testing the waters to see if this is a permanent increase," Mr Assaad said. "It's possible that employers, rather than ramp up employment which they do only after a while, they first start by ramping up hours of work. And it's only when they're sure that the increase in economic activity is going to continue that they would then hire another worker."

But Egyptians have not always been such a hard-working lot. Back in the days of Gamal Abdel Nasser, a former president and one of modern Egypt's founding fathers, economic policies hewed closer to Karl Marx than Milton Friedman. In the 1950s and 1960s, state-owned industries absorbed the vast majority of unskilled labourers while educated youths flocked to plum positions in the country's vast government bureaucracy.

Since then, economic reforms have sought to shrink the size of Egypt's public sector and bolster private enterprise. In 1991, Egypt took a conditional loan from the International Monetary Fund that required it to diminish the public sector. The transition has not been so smooth for Egypt's poorest, said Joel Beinin, a professor of Middle East history at Stanford University. "There has been big pressure to shrink the public sector, which has historically been the largest source of employment, since the '60s anyway," Mr Beinin said. "So there are probably 200,000 fewer public sector jobs. So the private sector, which in theory was supposed to employ these people, has simply not created an adequate number of jobs to employ them all. So obviously these people are unemployed, employed part time or working in some informal sector job, or catch as catch can."

Despite growth in the private sector, which Egypt's ruling National Democratic Party says now constitutes the majority of economic output, government jobs remain among the most highly sought positions for young Egyptians. Perhaps one reason for this is that the average government employee earns about 750 pounds each month for working 45 hours per week on average, Mr Assaad said. With generous health benefits, shorter hours, lenient supervisors and job security that in many cases lasts a lifetime, government employees sometimes find themselves with enough free time to take second jobs in the afternoons - a fringe opportunity that 25 per cent of government workers take, Mr Assaad said.

For the 75 per cent of the working public who cannot find or are not qualified for positions in the public sector, private companies may be the only option. And it is in the private sector, said Mr Assaad, where the pressure to work long hours is greatest. "I think there are regulations about the number of hours of work, overtime, that sort of thing," Mr Assaad said. "But generally, in the private sector, even in the formally regulated firms, they have their way of getting the regulators off their backs, let's put it this way."

If sidestepping the labour inspectors is even a minor concern for private sector employers, it is even less of one for the tens of millions of workers such as Mr Mohammed, none of whose four jobs are officially registered with or monitored by the government. Mr Assaad estimated that slightly more than half of all employed Egyptians work off the books in an informal sector that defies rigorous scrutiny or regulation. For Mr Mohammed, that means no health insurance, sick days, holidays or leave. But it does give him plenty of work in a country that does not have much to go around.

"I think about my work hours a lot, especially when I see my friends going out or going on vacation," said Mr Mohammed, who said he hopes to one day own his own shop. "But I say to myself that this is my destiny, and I have to accept it."
mbradley@thenational.ae