CAIRO — Like many other laborers, delivery workers are not able to practice social distancing during the novel coronavirus pandemic. At the same time, the service they provide helps protect customers — largely middle and upper-class citizens — by keeping those people out of busy shops where they might come in contact wth the illness.

Delivery workers put themselves at significant risk, in other words, while performing an essential function. And yet, their situation is more precarious than ever — both in terms of their exposure to the illness and vulnerability to market forces.

In the past month those forces threw delivery drivers first one one direction and then another as the government implemented stringent social-distancing restrictions but then changed course. For people in the delivery business, that first meant seeing work they had depended on to make ends meet dry up. Afterwards, however, they were suddenly compelled to throw themselves into much-in-demand work but with little in place to ensure their safety or risk being expendable.

The restrictive measures came first. On March 24, Prime Minister Mostafa Madbuly imposed an evening curfew, from 7 p.m. to 6 a.m., for 15 days to help curb the spread of COVID-19. Bakeries, supermarkets and pharmacies were exempted, but delivery services found themselves on the other side.

After two weeks passed, the prime minister decided to extend all the closure measures and partial curfew but with a few changes. Curfew was pushed back one hour to start at 8 p.m. in order to alleviate the traffic congestion before curfew starts. Some sectors were allowed to resume their operations, such as exporters. And finally, home delivery services across the country were exempted from the curfew.

Salah is a 30-year-old delivery worker who is married and has three children. He works in one branch of a multinational pizza restaurant. He spoke to Mada Masr before the decision was made to exempt delivery service from curfew hours. At the time, he complained about the marked decrease in delivery orders. "In the past, delivery orders would start peaking towards the end of the day," he said. "Now, the restaurant works from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. due to the curfew. So now we lose those peak hours."

In compliance with the decision to close down restaurants and cafes, restaurants stopped serving in their own halls, but they continued to provide delivery services that required kitchens to continue operating and depended on customers to order home delivery. Restaurants advertised well, offered discounts and limited their operations to branches that have a high demand. But prior to the decision to exempt delivery services, they were operating for only six hours per day.

The cut in work hours, and thus in the number of delivery orders possible, directly impacted Salah's income. "I receive commission after the 13th order. Before coronavirus, I had an average of 30 orders daily. Now, 10 orders is the maximum, so I lose my commissions and the tips I get from customers," he said.

Orders decreased for two reasons: limited working hours (before exemption from curfew) and low demand for ready-made food due to fear of infection. This prompted the restaurant's management, which now had a larger workforce than it needed, to force Salah to take a 15-day leave without any clarifications about the fate of his job. Salah is employed on a one-year contract.

The government's decision to exempt delivery services from curfew hours was like an 11th-hour reprieve for food delivery workers. And yet Salah couldn't escape his bad luck, as his village in Giza was placed on lockdown for 14 days after a number of residents tested positive for COVID-19.

Even though the restaurant's management asked Salah to come back to work, he could not leave his village due to the lockdown. He told Mada Masr that he negotiated each day with the checkpoint officers stationed by the entry and exit points of the village to let him leave to work.

"I talk to the officers and show them the medical documents of my wife, who has a kidney disease. Months ago, I was forced to sell my house furniture to be able to afford her treatment. After she recovered, I bought a fridge on an installment plan, paying LE300 ($19) per month. The monthly installment for the motorbike I work on is LE1,200 ($76). I also have the apartment rent. I thought this would all convince them to let me out. Some of my colleagues at work even came to the checkpoints to talk to the officers and confirm that I work with them, but to no avail," he said.

"All I did was buy bags of pasta worth LE150 ($9.50) and cans of tomato salsa. I don't know what I'll do in the next few days. In the beginning, the Ministry of Interior told us that they will distribute food cartons throughout the duration of the lockdown, but we haven't seen any food aid until now," he added.

Unlike big restaurant chains, smaller restaurants have laid off workers due to the COVID-19 crisis. Diaa, the owner of a barbeque restaurant in Heliopolis, told Mada Masr that he had 62 employees who worked between two shifts. A third of these were delivery workers. After the closure and curfew decisions were passed, Diaa's work was severely affected.

"In normal times, delivery orders start coming in at midday, which means that, with the curfew in place, we actually only have five working hours, and orders have even decreased during those hours. I pay money for rent, electricity and gas bills, charcoal, and employee wages. I cannot possibly commit to all of that under the present circumstances. I had no choice but to lay off employees who work for a daily wage," he explained.

Diaa added that there are restaurants close to his that have already closed down. "All of these restaurants had delivery workers. When work was disrupted, the workers were laid off and restaurants closed. The owners are now just paying rent," he said.

Scrambling to cover demand

Unlike takeaway restaurants that had to lay off workers or close down completely, small and medium-sized grocery shops and large supermarket chains, such as Carrefour, have experienced a hike in demand for home deliveries. Carrefour — which announced on Sunday that a second staff member at one of its Cairo branches tested positive for COVID-19 — reported that its internet shopping orders multiplied sixfold over the past few weeks. Some businesses have hired new delivery workers, while others have had to restructure task responsibilities to meet the increased demand on home delivery.

Large retail chains have the financial and human resources necessary to establish teleshopping platforms for their customers, cover wide geographical areas and accept phone orders. As for small and medium-sized grocery shops, they only rely on phone orders and have a limited workforce to deliver purchases within a small geographic area.

A bakery shop during the second day of a two-weeks curfew in March — Photo: Lobna Tarek/DPA/ZUMA

"Phone orders have significantly increased," said Mohamed al-Sheikh, an owner of a medium-sized grocery shop in Zamalek. "I cannot keep the shop open 24/7 or run two shifts as I used to in order to allow workers to go back to their homes. But because of the increase in sales, workers of both shifts are now working at the same time."

"On the contrary, they were not more than what we needed. They are like 'the geese that lay golden eggs.' Those who worked in storage and shelving are now doing delivery because work inside the store has decreased, while home orders have increased. With Ramadan coming soon, I might hire two or three more delivery workers to meet the rising demand," Sheikh added.

Sheikh is sitting behind the cashier, wearing gloves and a face mask. Next to him is a bottle of ethyl alcohol solution. But workers in the shop and those getting ready to deliver purchases on their motorbikes are not wearing any protective gear. When Mada Masr inquired about this, they said they were satisfied with the statements Sheikh had made.

Matters are different in large supermarket chains that have encouraged teleshopping. Those businesses have relied on advertisements that highlight the importance of customer safety and satisfaction and the willingness to accommodate people's fear of infection. For that reason, they have emphasized the strict measures that delivery workers are following in terms of wearing protective gear. In addition, these advertisements focus on the aspect of "contactless" transactions in delivery services, which include several instructions made for workers, like standing at a distance from the apartment door. Another factor that helps with contactless transactions is online payment or credit card payment upon delivery to avoid exchanging cash.

Despite this appearance, the situation is more complicated behind the scenes. In a warehouse in Zamalek, from which home deliveries are sent out and which is far away from the store where customers directly make purchases, storage workers are operating without safety measures in a poorly ventilated space. They have no access to protective equipment or sanitizers, and none of the workers maintain a "safe distance" between each other. In turn, storage workers directly deal with delivery workers who gather in front of the warehouse — also without protective gear and without keeping a safe distance between one another.

At risk and overworked

This is not unique to this warehouse only. Saad, a delivery worker who works in a chain whose online sales have doubled in the last few weeks, told Mada Masr that the increased demand resulted in dozens of delivery workers queuing in front of warehouses and distribution centers for more than 10 hours to pick up the products for delivery.

And despite the large number of delivery workers gathering in front of warehouses, there are no protective measures to prevent infection. Saad, who is 46, holds a BA from the Arabic language faculty at Azhar University and has worked in delivery services for 20 years, often buys a face mask and gloves out of pocket.

"They are well prepared for the situation. If a delivery worker gets infected, they will easily replace him with another one, and the company will not be affected," he said

The increase in online shopping not only exposes delivery workers to potential contamination, but it also has a negative effect on the labor market due to the increasing need for these workers.

Saad told Mada Masr that large retail supermarkets do not have their own delivery teams, because they sign a contract with a shipping company, which in turn arranges deliveries with shipping contractors. A contractor can secure pick-up trucks and drivers for the shipping company. A delivery truck usually transports around 12 to 14 orders at once. Supermarket chains pay the shipping company for each bulk delivery, and the shipping company pays the contractor a smaller fee.

"Finally, the driver gets his payment from the contractor, which is LE400 ($25) per delivery," said Saad.

Saad told us about his daily work in delivery during the current circumstances. "I start my work early in the morning. I deliver all the orders I have. But even though they range from 12 to 14 orders at maximum, the shipping company doesn't guarantee us deliveries within a limited geographic area, which means we take a longer time," he explained.

"I then go to the distribution center around 2 p.m. As soon as I arrive, I take a number and wait for my turn to receive my new orders, which happens around 12 a.m. Before delivery services got exempted from the curfew, I was forced to sleep in my car after picking up the orders and wait until curfew was over. At 6 a.m., I would start my delivery journey," Saad added.

He explained that after the decision to close down universities and restaurants, workers who deliver food items were severely affected, so they turned to shipping companies for work. "Before we had only 60 or 70 vehicles waiting by the distribution centers," Saad said. "Now, we have 180 vehicles, which means 200 people gathering in the same place."

According to Saad, the shipping company benefits from the large number of delivery cars for two reasons. The first is that demand has increased. The second is that contractors or drivers who are dissatisfied due to the current circumstances can be easily replaced now that there are plenty of them. A company now has more leverage, in other words, and can pressure drivers because there are no legal obligations between the company and the drivers, nor between the contractors and drivers.

Furthermore, the contractor's role ends at providing drivers. Saad does not have a contract, and thus he has neither health or car insurance. If he were to get sick and had to stop going to work, he would bear the burden by himself. And if his car broke down, he would pay for the maintenance costs.

Saad has three children. They're the main reason he goes to work despite the risk of contracting the coronavirus. He continues to work every day despite the fact that his income was affected by the long waiting hours in the distribution center. In the past, Saad would have done 18 or 20 deliveries by mid-month, but now he can only do one per day. So far, he's done only 11.

Salma Hussein, an economic researcher at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, says that the responsibility for protecting this type of employment largely falls on the government, which in turn needs to provide incentives, tax exemptions and compensatory benefits in light of the COVID-19 crisis. She adds that home delivery workers must have employment contracts, emphasizing that legal contraction is the fundamental guarantee for the employee's protection even if the employer fires them because the contract grants them legal rights.

Hussein also points out that there are no labor unions for delivery workers because of the state's persecution of union activities, which are vilified and subject to security crackdowns. This dissuades delivery workers and the like from forming labor unions, in Hussein's view.

The teleshopping market in Egypt is relatively small, but it has been rapidly growing over the past few years. The online prepared food delivery market is estimated to be worth at least $74 million, and it is estimated to grow to $131 million in 2024. But these statistics only represent online food deliveries, which make up only 5% of the food delivery market, which is still dominated by phone orders. And this also excludes groceries and fresh foods ordered from supermarkets.

As the volume of delivery services continues to balloon, so will the demand for laborers for home delivery.


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