From Cairo to Casablanca, informal workers suffer

Morocco was among the first African countries to start shutting down borders and economic activity in recent weeks to stem the spread of the coranavirus. (AFP)
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Updated 26 March 2020

From Cairo to Casablanca, informal workers suffer

  • The poor in North Africa have been hard hit by virus-induced downturn

RABAT: Earlier this month, Soukaina Rgragui, her one-year-old daughter and diabetic mother lived modestly on the money brought back home by Soukaina’s husband, a vendor of used furniture in the streets of Morocco’s capital Rabat.

Now that virus containment measures have shut down his informal business, Rgragui finds herself among many vulnerable Moroccans begging strangers on the Internet for help.

Morocco was among the first African countries to start shutting down borders and economic activity in recent weeks to stem the spread of the virus, and other African governments are watching the fallout in Morocco as they adopt similar measures.

Rgragui’s husband is among some 2 billion people the International Labor Organization (ILO) estimates work in the “informal economy,” without official contracts or worker protections. Such work is especially widespread in Africa, where informal workers make up as much as 85 percent of the labor force, according to the ILO.

These are already among society’s poorest and most vulnerable, and their troubles resonate widely. In Tunisia, a unregistered fruit vendor set himself on fire in 2010 out of desperation, unleashing the Arab Spring uprisings that overthrew governments and changed the face of the region.

In Morocco, such workers are not eligible for government handouts to those who are now jobless because of restrictions on businesses and movement meant to stem the spread of the virus.

After Morocco started shutting down “non-essential” business activity, the little savings the Rgraguis had were depleted after buying a week’s worth of food, milk for the baby and medicine for the grandmother, Rgragui said.

“Please help with whatever you can,” she pleaded on a coronavirus support group on Facebook. “We don’t have money to buy diapers for the baby.”

Since late February, the Moroccan government has been steadily introducing virus control measures that gradually turned Morocco’s vibrant cities into ghost towns.

Borders, schools, shops, companies, cafes and mosques have closed. Movement between cities is restricted. Only one member of each family is allowed to go out shopping for necessities, and those who still work must have permission papers to show to the authorities or else face up to three months of prison time.

“Morocco chose to prioritize the collective good of its people at the expense of the economy and commerce. The measures our country took are essential to limit the spread of the virus,” Health Ministry communications official, Hafid Ezzahiri, said.

FASTFACT

$1.45

One in three Egyptians is living in poverty, or what is about $1.45 per day.

Morocco has so far recorded 122 confirmed cases of the new coronavirus and four deaths.

“Economic problems are inevitable, as it is the case in the rest of the world. We hope to recover soon,” he added.

The government is offering a $200 monthly stipend through June to registered workers who have lost their jobs. But that does not apply to Mohammed, who worked unofficially for a gardening company before the virus crisis hit. He and his brother picked up garbage, used tissues and masks from the gardens of Marrakech, for $9 a day.

“I would rather starve than have the coronavirus,” said Mohammed, who spoke on condition his last name be withheld because they are not registered workers, and because of the shame he feels about his current condition. “But why must I choose between two ills?”

He and his brother are isolating themselves from their father who is battling cancer. “It hurts me that I can’t get close to my father,” he said. “I am afraid for his fragile health.” Before letting him go, Mohammed’s employer gave him $100 to “help with the hard times.” But now, he said, “I am running out. My father’s treatment costs $50 every ten days.”

A government Economic Watch Committee created in response to the coronavirus said on Monday that it is studying proposals to assist Moroccan workers in the informal sector.

In recent years, Morocco diversified social services to help people in rural areas, the elderly and widows, but services are still not sufficient to help all in need. According to a study by Morocco’s Planning Agency last year, half of Moroccans are unaware of the existence of social programs for poverty, medical coverage or even pension funds.

In the Arab world’s most populous country, Egypt, millions work without contracts or official salaries, and will be hard-hit now that the government announced a curfew on Tuesday and restrictions on movement. One in three Egyptians is living in poverty, or what is about $1.45 per day.

Egypt’s government has discussed setting up a crisis fund to support informal workers, but the fund would face the monumental task of registering them and finding a way to ensure help reaches them quickly.

In Morocco’s coastal city of Casablanca, the country’s economic capital, phone repairer Mohamed Boulekhlaf has been allowed to keep his small shop open, but business has collapsed as people are ordered to stay inside. He is increasingly worried about getting the virus from customers.

“We are very afraid of what may happen in the future,” he said.

Individuals and celebrities have shown support for poor families and are encouraging well-off Moroccans to donate.

Teacher Meriem El Ghazi decided to take charge of her neighbor’s family in Marrakech for as long as this crisis continues after the family breadwinner lost his job to virus measures. 

“We must stand with one another,” she said. “We are each other’s only safety net,” she said.


Bailout will keep Air France-KLM afloat for less than year: CEO

Updated 42 min 39 sec ago

Bailout will keep Air France-KLM afloat for less than year: CEO

  • ‘If we base it upon the past few weeks, it is clear that the recovery in traffic will be slower than expected’
  • Governments are coming under pressure to tie airline bailouts to environmental commitments

PARIS: Bailouts provided to Air France-KLM by the French and Dutch governments will keep the airline flying less than a year, its CEO Benjamin Smith said Monday and evoked the possibility of injecting new capital.
In an interview with the French daily l’Opinion, Smith also warned that calls for airlines to contribute more to fight climate change could be catastrophic for their survival which is already under threat due to the coronavirus pandemic.
When countries imposed lockdowns earlier this year to stem the spread of the coronavirus airlines faced steep drops in revenue that have claimed several carriers.
A number of countries stepped in with support, including France which provided $8.2 billion to Air France and the Netherlands which received a $2.9 billion package.
“This support will permit us to hold on less than 12 months,” said Smith.
The reason is that air traffic is picking up very slowly as many northern hemisphere countries are now fearing a second wave of infections.
“If we base it upon the past few weeks, it is clear that the recovery in traffic will be slower than expected,” according to Smith, who said when the bailout was put together the airline was expecting a return to 2019 levels only in 2024.
Smith said discussions were already underway with shareholders on shoring up the airline group, and steps would be taken before the next regular annual meeting in the second quarter of next year.
“One, three or five billion euros? It is too early to put a figure on a possible recapitalization,” he said.
The airline group had $12.12 billion in cash or available under credit lines.
Major shareholders include the French government with a 14.3 percent stake, the Dutch government at 14 percent, as well as Delta and China Eastern airlines which each hold an 8 percent stake.
Governments are coming under pressure to tie airline bailouts to environmental commitments.
One proposal that has come from a citizen’s convention convoked by President Emmanuel Macron would cost airlines an estimated $3.6 billion.
Smith said the imposition of environmental charges on the industry would be “irresponsible and catastrophic” for Air France-KLM.