Cairo, Egypt April 24 – Young men on bicycles and scooters ride through Cairo, Egypt’s sprawling megalopolis, dodging cars to deliver more than a million orders each day, with little physical or legal protection.
Egypt’s digital economy is growing as economic pressures drive more of its key population – educated urban youth – towards the gig-work model.
Engineer Mohamed Sherif, 37, joined online food ordering company Talabat as a bicycle courier in Alexandria three months ago because he couldn’t find a job.
“They’re bleeding you dry left and right, but there’s nothing else to do,” he told AFP.
In early April, couriers in Talabat called a two-day strike to demand higher wages, with only a fraction of the 12,000 employees.
The work stoppage, however, reflected the state of Egypt’s large app-based gig economy.
Inflation soared to 12.1%, its highest level in three years, while the Egyptian pound plunged to 18% of its value.
The mounting economic difficulties come as global commodity prices soared after Russia invaded Ukraine.
A courier who declined to be named said commissions had stagnated since 2020 at 9-18 Egyptian pounds (50 cents and $1).
“You can work nine or ten hours and not get enough orders,” Sherif told AFP.
After paying for petrol, oil and other expenses, “you might end up only gaining 30 or 40 pounds that day.”
In Egypt, where 60% of the 103 million inhabitants are under 30 and 14.5% of university graduates are unemployed, digital work platforms have attracted 100,000 to 200,000 workers.
Uber alone employed 90,000 drivers in 2019, all without contracts, insurance or social security.
– ‘Take advantage of vulnerability’ –
Fairwork, a University of Oxford project, worked with the American University in Cairo to assess the working conditions of seven of Egypt’s largest digital work platforms.
Uber, Talabat and grocery app Mongez scored out of 10, while ride-sharing startup Swvl – which made headlines for its $1.5 billion Nasdaq debut earlier this year – got only three out of 10.
Omar Ramadan, whose home maintenance and cleaning services startup FilKhedma earned the highest score at five out of 10, said working conditions are rarely discussed in the tech ecosystem.
“It’s very rare to talk about how much we’re paying people, whether it’s fair or not, whether we’re taking advantage of people’s vulnerability.”
A third of Egyptians live in poverty, and almost the same number are likely to fall into poverty, according to the World Bank.
The average monthly family income is EGP 6,000 ($325).
Following this month’s strike, Talabat said in a statement that couriers earn around EGP 4,000 to 6,000 per month, and up to EGP 10,000 “if they work eight hours or more”.
But couriers say that excludes the cost of petrol – which has risen 3% in recent days – and payment and maintenance for the scooter or bike they use.
Couriers using motorbikes earn up to twice as much as those who make their deliveries by bicycle or on foot, Sherif said.
– A legal gray area –
Couriers also put their lives at risk navigating the chaotic streets of Cairo, where traffic rules are most often flouted and accidents occur almost daily.
Talabat Egypt’s public affairs manager, Asmaa Khalil, denied claims by some couriers that they did not have adequate insurance to protect them.
According to her, Talabat contributes to accident and life insurance, but the schemes are managed by external contractors who recruit and manage their couriers.
Bike courier Sherif criticized the method, calling it a way for employers to “get rid of the dirty work”.
Khalil said that legally, Talabat has “no obligation” to its couriers and only offers insurance and other benefits “out of goodwill”.
For Wael Tawfik of the Legal Collective to Promote Labor Awareness, the best recourse for workers is to form a union.
But Sherif said it would be a difficult task for couriers to form a union because “unlike factory workers who all work in the same place, couriers only meet by coincidence”.
According to the International Labor Organization, only 13.6 million people receive state-funded social security benefits in Egypt, where 63% of the workforce is employed in the informal economy.
“Labour law, tax law, social security, it’s all unclear how the gig economy is supposed to behave,” Ramadan said.
“Everyone in the gig economy is in a gray area,” he added.