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Sunday, 13 March 2022

Could digital labor platforms provide better working conditions for Egypt’s informal workers?

Digital labor platforms offer chances for fair work in Egypt’s informal sectors, a new report concludes — but there’s still a long way to go. Digital labor platforms represent a “unique and flexible” way for Egypt’s informal workers to earn a living — especially considering our highly informal economy — but they also have plenty of wrinkles still to be ironed out, concludes a recently-published study (pdf) conducted by Oxford University-based, GIZ-commissioned project Fairwork and AUC’s Access to Knowledge for Development Center (A2K4D).

What exactly do we mean by digital labor platforms? Digital labor platforms include both web-based platforms and location-based apps that outsource and allocate work, usually in service industries like driving, cleaning or running errands, the ILO notes. Today, these platforms form a core part of the gig economy (characterized by short-term contract or freelance work). Altogether, Egypt’s informal sector makes up an estimated 50% of GDP and 60% of the total employed population, with some 90% of SMEs belonging to the informal sector. And our digital transformation — with the internet penetration rate rising rapidly from an estimated 30% in 2010 to 57.3% as of January 2021 — has accelerated the growth of flexible, online ‘gig’ work, the report notes.

Fairwork aims to evaluate whether these platforms offer fair working conditions by examining them against its own five principles of fair work: Pay, conditions, contracts, management, and representation. Platforms are scored out of ten, with each of the five principles allocated two points.

The Fairwork-A2K4D report examines seven platforms operating in Egypt: These are home service provider FilKhedma, courier delivery companies Mrsool and Mongez, tutoring provider Orcas, ride-hailing platforms Uber and Swvl, and food delivery platform Talabat. The platforms were selected because they’re large and influential within their respective sectors, offering a snapshot of working conditions within Egypt’s digital labor environment, the report tells us.

Out of a possible ten points, FilKhedma scored the highest with five. Mrsool and Orcas followed with four, Swvl with three, and Mongez, Uber and Talabat with one.

Three platforms were awarded at least a point for fair pay: FilKhedma, Orcas and Swvl all pay their workers minimum wage or above — which for 2021 was EGP 2k per month, or EGP 333 per week, according to the report. The scores factored in work related costs — like vehicle maintenance, equipment, and waiting times. For the other platforms surveyed, these extra costs mean employees don’t actually take home the minimum wage. Only Orcas and Swvl pay a fair living wage or above — assessed as EGP 3.5k per month or EGP 583 per week in 2021.

Five were given points for fair conditions, by clearly taking action to mitigate risks faced by their workers: Mongez, Mrsool, FilKhedma, Orcas, and Uber all exhibit awareness of the risks their workers face, and take some action to protect them, the report tells us. Mongez provides workers with PPE — though it’s at a reduced cost, deducted from their salary every month. Mrsool offers an accident reimbursement system, so workers are compensated for any road accidents and recovery costs. FilKhedma provides a safety manual and offers safety training to workers. Orcas has a cancellation policy that safeguards worker incomes. And Uber has ins, and other policies in place to protect its drivers.

But none provide workers with a safety net: Not having a safety net is one of the biggest risks faced by gig workers, and none of the platforms examined by the study in Egypt fully addresses this, the report notes. Mrsool is the only one to address it even partially: it once reassigned a worker unable to perform his job due to workplace injury to another department while the injury lasted.

Three get a point for their contracts having clear terms and conditions: FilKhedma, Orcas, and Swvl have clear and accessible terms and conditions, as opposed to the other four platforms, which don’t notify workers of proposed changes within a reasonable timeframe before they take effect.

But all impose at least some unfair contract terms: Each of these platforms stipulate that they don’t bear any contractual liability, which the report considers an unfair contract term.

Three score management points, because they provide due process for decisions affecting workers: FilKhedma, Mrsool and Talabat can show they provide due process for decisions that impact workers, including an avenue for appeals over disciplinary action. The other platforms either have an inadequate appeals process or workers are in some way “disadvantaged for voicing concerns.”

But only one offers anything close to equity in the management process, by taking meaningful steps to be inclusive of women: Though Egypt’s maintenance work is usually undertaken by men, FilKhedma have taken some steps to address gender bias by offering cleaning services, which tend to attract women workers, the report notes.

Still, two now appear to be taking steps to be more generally inclusive: In an encouraging move, both FilKhedma and Orcas have recently implemented anti-discrimination policies, after collaboration with the Fairwork Egypt team, the report tells us. The aim of this is to work towards greater equality and inclusion and commit to non-discrimination on the basis of characteristics including race, religion, gender, marital status and disability.

Finally, only one platform scores points for fair representation: Mrsool was “the only platform that provided evidence of meaningful collective worker voice mechanisms,” the report says. Workers can organize and show unity through regular forums and meetings, and the platform has publicly declared that it supports the establishment of a couriers trade union, with which it would willingly enter into negotiations.

In short: Digital labor platforms offer important avenues for Egyptian workers to pursue employment prospects. The platforms offer job prospects to cohorts of otherwise unemployed informal workers. And because many are early-stage, they could serve as blueprints for Egypt’s wider business sector to engage in fairer work practices, notes the report, which suggests that making them fairer is eminently possible.

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