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Shadow or informal economies in Algeria play a leading role in the exploitation of different segments of society, especially women, regardless of their socio-economic background or location. The tragic situation of women who lack proper academic qualifications is well known. They work in a variety of sectors (the sale of homemade products, agriculture, as well as private and even public institutions), without any legally binding protections, particularly social security, losing in the process the chance to secure a pension that could provide the bare minimum income required to survive in their old age. These women hence constitute the most vulnerable group to what is referred to as “diseases of poverty”.
A new social class has emerged with the dissemination of internet technologies and the increase in the number of women working in its related fields. Even though these women have post-secondary and sometimes even graduate degrees, they find themselves in an economic environment dominated by unemployment. This social class can be seen as a representation of "modern" Arab women working in pioneering sectors, but in fact, it is just another road to the same kind of exploitation that can be found in other less pretentious sectors.
Women working under the banner of internet technologies
This social group being exploited in the shadow economy has, unfortunately, not been properly examined in Algeria. Perhaps because it is new, or because it is not visible in public spaces like other groups of exploited women, such as female workers in shops, in party halls, car showrooms, etc.
Was this group ignored due to some sort of censorship? Was it ignored accidentally, or was it to encourage these gig economy activities that depend on internet and digitization - even though Algeria ranked 175 out of 189 countries in the international rankings of internet connectivity in 2018 (worldwide broadband speed league)?
Despite enduring exploitation, the precarious nature of their work, and the various social and health risks that they have to deal with, women working in this field are often ignored and forgotten, not just by authorities claiming to pursue undeclared labour, but also by women’s rights organizations.
With the horror of unemployment looming over them and faced with the changes, or more accurately the profound imbalances affecting family and society, women in Algeria find themselves forced to work as Uber taxi drivers, online teachers grading papers on demand, nannies or babysitters, cooks, nurses or even on-call doctors on Uber-inspired digital applications.
The data - despite its scarcity - concerning the labour and employment sector in Algeria (according to the National Office of Statistics "ONS" in 2012), shows that the percentage of working-age women that have jobs is 16.6%, in comparison to 66.7% of working-age men. While the informal economy employs 3.9 million people, which is equivalent to 45.6% of the available labour force. A proper gendered analysis has not been done on this figure, so we don’t have accurate data about how many of those workers are in fact, women.
In the last few years, no accurate studies or statistics were done about women working outside the formal or legal framework. So much so that the new president of Algeria (elected on December 11, 2019) addressed the issue in his commencement speech, promising to lift taxes on women working from home, provided that they register for the National Solidarity Fund. He confined these activities to traditional and stereotypical work, such as sewing, taking care of children at home, baking deserts and cooking. This confirms his ignorance or disregard of women’s precarious work in fields that are far transcend what is commonly known or imagined.
Uber-like apps on the rise
The conditions of the global market, the technological and competitive changes it brings, and the strength and speed of its penetration into our countries, demand unrealistically aggressive and fast adaptation. This has created considerable disturbances in defining the boundaries of certain roles, to the extent that, for example, the education sector (where women are the overwhelming majority of workers in Algeria) is publicly under attack. Internet portals that suggest “new ways of teaching and learning” in the style of what is being referred to as “uberization”, are competing with the educational sector and imposing their rules and notions onto it. Neither the authorities nor the student's parents had a say in the changes occurring to the educational system, which is now being controlled by the rules of the shadow economy and precarious labour.
Occupational precariousness in economically developed countries is explained by the necessity for forced flexibility in an environment governed by competition and the growing diversity of new industries, while in our countries, it is merely a sign of the indiscriminate exploitation that accompanies a rentier economy. Hence, it cannot be simply defined as work where “the two parties, the worker and the employer, agree to a temporary legal work contract" instead of a full-time contract. For women within this model, who are now called “freelance workers,” being in a precarious work relationship is very common. More women are falling prey to the large, often multinational companies. Due to their independent “freelance” status, these women are subject to the fluctuations and demands of an unstable consumer society.
At the foot of the ladder
It is very rare for women to be in managerial roles (such as the C.E.O, webmaster, or the like) in these novel professions that have been facilitated by the world of digital technologies. It is more likely that women in this field, regardless of their qualifications or degrees, remain “factory girls”, i.e. invisible low-level workers in a new kind of semi-industrial sector which generates profits that rival those of the top classic industries, such as vehicle and pharmaceutical manufacturing.
Although E-payments are not available in Algeria, which has been a barrier to the activities of uberization and E-commerce, there is still a noticeable growth in these activities throughout various sectors. Faced with the horror of unemployment which looms over women (which until very recently was only addressed if it affected men), and faced with the changes, or more accurately the profound imbalances that are affecting the larger society and the family, women in Algeria find themselves forced to work as Uber taxi drivers, online teachers grading papers on demand, nannies or babysitters, cooks, nurses, or even on-call doctors on Uber-inspired platforms and apps.
Under the current conditions, the majority of women working in the technology sector work in E-commerce. They do so knowing that these types of web-related jobs all have one thing in common: pursuing the lowest possible cost without respecting any legal or financial restrictions. Taking advantage of a workforce that receives minimal guidance with barely an hour of training on a platform, website or program. The “workers” must then also provide the computer, smartphone, car, or whatever devices or tools that they use.
E-commerce and the feminization of precarious labour
E-commerce is a field which has been conquered by women in technologically advanced countries. For example, in France, 30% of businesswomen work in this field. They own famous websites, especially in the world of fashion, style, interior design, and maternity. In Algeria, too, many women work in this field; however, the field takes on a different form. The fact that Algeria doesn’t have E-payment technologies plays a role, but the current status of Algerian E-commerce is mostly due to a political system that refuses to address sectors within its shadow economy. It fails to control, legislate, prosecute unauthorized work, provide transparency on the issue, or properly report on or tax profits from these activities that employ God knows how many people who depend on this type of work to support entire precarious families. This is why this mysterious, exploitative field becomes suspicious, as no one knows the precise source of the goods sold on these websites and then delivered to the customers by women who chose to, or are forced to, work in these industries. They consequently face many issues that directly threaten their well-being.
E-commerce, which initially attracted women, particularly young mothers, because it offers them the freedom to choose their work hours, ended up becoming a solitary experience, managed by the constraints of the task at hand, and the number of products sold via a private merchandise page or via a large corporate platform. These women then find themselves facing unknown customers and have only their phones to refer to. In this "conservative" society, this means they need to take the necessary precautions to protect themselves, such as making sure that there is another woman in the house to which they are delivering. In addition, these freelancers do not have an official professional registration card that protects them, nor do they belong to a union or professional association.
These women are usually surprised by the fact that the work is stressful, dangerous, and does not guarantee a minimum living income. Their work is a “liberal” profession, where one if free to make their own schedule like a doctor or a lawyer, only by name. A woman in this type of work also pays a heavy price for this alleged freedom to work flexible hours, since if she falls ill or gets pregnant, she loses her income. Even in “normal” circumstances, she must constantly monitor the messages she receives from the service and promptly respond to them no matter how late in the day it is, or else risk losing a customer. In the case where the woman is taking care of her family and/or a parent with special needs, the fluctuating working hours and having to leave the house at all times to deliver goods to customers only make matters worse. Her work condition is thus precarious, but so is her social situation.
Social media and the feminization of precarious labour
Some women do not work under the banner of any company or large importers. They are more like businesswomen who conduct their business through their social networking accounts. Their work does not fall neatly under the definition of E-commerce, but is very much precarious.
Women are doing this type of precarious work not because they are willing or happy to work for low wages, but rather due to socio-political factors that push them into these intermediary jobs, compliant with the pressures and restrictions that these women face, as well as a predatory economic system that wants its goods and consumerist lifestyle to infiltrate all segments of society, without having to develop the economy or improve the situation for male and female workers.
This type of work is unauthorized and carried out by women who do not have social security and do not contribute to a pension fund. Women in this line of work seem to mostly practice stereotypical professions that have been adapted to the Internet. Showcasing their women’s products through accounts of varying popularity (expensive jewellery, oriental clothing, makeup). This solitary activity can be traced back to what used to be known as "Trabando" (a word derived from Contraband), which is a type of work that was common in the black market, where products are brought in from Europe in special suitcases and then sold in the local market. The same products can now be seen displayed in the "men's markets", which are purely male-run weekly or daily markets common in Algeria and which can be found in traditional neighborhoods or close to the used car markets. In the big cities, well-known spaces are also devoted to similar markets that open at dawn, in which women are only clients and never salespeople.
Nowadays, these women travel to Turkey and the UAE in particular (and Syria before 2011), and only deal with other women through their social media accounts. They are constantly under the threat of being caught by the border’s customs services, but they probably offer bribes at various entry points since they don’t declare their imports, keep any commercial records, or open two bank accounts, one for local currencies and the other for Euros. Although at some point, some of them were able to make significant profits, the presence of large importers who own luxury shops in malls poses a threat to these women, and their work ends up becoming precarious. Let us imagine, in a country that has not integrated this type of trade into its economy, the situation these women may find themselves in, in the event of illness, accident, disability or old age accompanied by the social isolation of the divorced or widowed among them.
Uber and the feminization of precarious labour
In 2018, the chief officer of Ya-technologie in Algeria, a well-known company also known as Yassir, stated that their company has “activated” the accounts of about 100 female drivers, making sure to avoid describing the divers as employees. When he was asked about the professional status of the drivers, he replied that the drivers are linked to the company through a partnership contract that does not guarantee them social security coverage. He also stressed that he is in contact with the authorities to define and legislate this type of work, known as “vehicle for hire” (in French, VTC Véhicule touristique avec chauffeur).
The “vehicle for hire” sector is not regulated in Algeria, while the profession of driving normal taxi cabs adheres to almost impossible regulation. In a country characterized by erratic and minimal means of transportation, and where national transportation companies are being restructured to the point of being dismantled, the question of the role of the State in this is often being raised. How is the government reacting to the phenomenon of “uberization” that is affecting most areas of public services?
What about the women who have an account with Yassir? Is their situation the same as that of men, who are either retired or unemployed, connecting to Yassir in their spare time, or when they desperately need some money? According to most drivers, nighttime is when prices surge because there is no competition (no buses, trams, or taxis), so it is the best time to earn money. Can we imagine, in our society, that women are safe to drive at night, particularly without the protection of a legal binding contract or a union?
The owners of Uber-like companies in Algeria are proud that a larger portion of their female customers prefer a female driver because of the security it provides. But the fallacy in this narrative becomes clear when one becomes aware of the type of contracts that the drivers have. For example, vehicle maintenance, which is essential for any safe ride, is the responsibility of the driver alone and is not overseen by the company. Also, in the event of an accident or in case of harassment, Uber is not a guarantor and does not get involved.
The high percentage of women using Uber rides might have prompted companies like Uber to announce on their social media accounts in the beginning of 2019 that they were employing women, boasting that they would provide "a better service for women by women". They rely on a distorted and perverted understanding of "the customs and traditions of the region" while ignoring the hypocrisy of prioritising the safety of the woman being transported at the expense of the woman who is forced to work without any security or safety.
Is there any escape from “uberization”?
The increasing lack of job opportunities and the stifling political and economic climate that is causing poverty, and in turn a severe social crisis, is pushing all types of people into precarious work. This is particularly true because Algeria is in the process of privatizing most public services, resulting in the rise of a system of corruption, quick-win investments, and money laundering through multinational companies that are supported by influential Algerians.
This situation encourages the spread of websites and platforms that replace the state’s systems for the management and creation of jobs. This is true in all sectors and fields without exception, including health, education, transport, and tourism. Sites such as Nbatou.dz, MyTeacher.dz, and MyHealth.dz, which are similar to famous sites available in European countries, started appearing in Algeria a couple of years ago and offering “solutions” for transportation, accommodation, medical treatment, education, and preparing for academic examinations, amongst others.
On the ground, it is mostly young women who work in direct retail, without any social insurance, in low-wage jobs that do not meet the minimum requirements of the labour laws. When that is taken into account, one wonders if women will also be the foundation for precarious labour in the fields that are dependent on internet technologies.
In the past ten years, a notable phenomenon could be observed in Algeria, namely that the percentage of females that hold college and university degrees is significantly higher than that of males, except in the top-ranking fields such as medicine, digital media and technology.
Since the sector we are discussing is based specifically in cities and requires people who hold a degree, it is natural, albeit from a purely statistical perspective, that women absorb the majority of this precarious labour. We take into consideration that 56.5% of women who hold a university degree are unemployed, according to the latest study by the Center for Applied Economic Research for Development (CREAD).
Men, however, are less likely to have precarious work positions than women, regardless of their degree levels and education, even when they specialize in non-prestigious fields. It should be noted that since 2008, the number of high achieving female students in bachelor's degree programs in Algeria has been on the rise, reaching 65.29%, according to the Prime Ministry, while women make up 60% of all students, according to the Ministry of Higher Education.
The truth is that men hold more prestigious positions and advance in their careers faster, whether as employees within the shadow economy or in the business world. The National Bureau of Statistics confirms that in 2018, female entrepreneurs only made up 18% of the industry. This phenomenon can be seen across every area of management and within all the so-called top-tier positions.
Women are doing this type of precarious work not because they are willing or happy to work for low wages, but rather due to socio-political factors that push them into these intermediary jobs, compliant with the pressures and restrictions that these women face, as well as a predatory economic system that wants its goods and consumerist lifestyle to infiltrate all segments of society, without having to develop the economy or improve the situation for male and female workers. This is what happens when people cannot get a job in the public sector, which is, despite its low wages, the only sector that provides stable work and does not leave women resorting to precarious labour.
In the end, one cannot help but wonder if “uberization” would eventually catch up even with the pastry-maker who makes her living selling her home-baked goods, forcing her to buy a smartphone and a computer to communicate with her customers…
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Translated from Arabic by Serene Husni
Published in Assafir Al-Arabi on 05/03/2020