A man shines shoes at a street corner in Cairo. Image Credit: Saeed Shehata

Cairo: Perched over a small box containing his tools, Samir Abdul Rahman goes about his business as a street shoeshine man. He briskly starts polishing the shoes of a well-dressed customer. As the 61-year-old finishes the job, the customer slips some coins in Abdul Rahman’s hand, who humbly kisses them in a sign of contentment.

“I have been doing this job in this place for about 25 years,” says Abdul Rahman, near a downtown Cairo subway station.

“Previously, I had worked as a floor tile fixer, but had to quit due to health problems,” adds the father of four.

“As a shoe polisher, the money I earn hardly helps support the family. But anyways, thanks are due to Allah.”

Workers prepare bread at a bakery in Cairo. Courtesy: Saeed Shehata

He devoutly kisses the palm of his hand in a gesture of gratitude.

“What worries me most is that I can fall sick for any reason, which means my family will not get what it needs. But Allah is there and protects us.”

is the estimated number of temporary workers in Egypt

Abdul Rahman is one of Egypt’s estimated 10 million casual workers, who often suffer from a lack of permanent livelihoods and insurance. They belong to a category of labourers locally called “casual breadwinners”.

“We don’t have a stable income,” says Abdul Wadud Saeed, a porter at a Cairo market.

A worker pushes a trolley on a street in Cairo. Millions of temporary workers in Egypt have no stable income or access to social security and health care. Courtesy: Saeed Shehata

“Our earnings depend on circumstances. When prices go up, this means a few customers will hire our services. Also, a flu can keep any of us bed-ridden, with the household going without money.”

Saeed, 63, uses a hand-bush wheelbarrow to carry loads of vegetables and fruit for customers from the market to their cars. “When the market business is down, I go look for other work on the street. Sometimes, I load a gas cylinder on the wheelbarrow and deliver it to the doorstep of the customer. Or I carry big bags. Anything goes. Every day, I stand at Allah’s door and He never lets me down.”

Saeed lives with his wife and their 16-year-old daughter in the Cairo suburb of Al Marj.

“My three sons are married and living away from us. I don’t ask them for help because they can hardly provide enough for their own families amid this crazy rise in living costs. I depend on my arm and this wheelbarrow to earn my living.”

In recent months, Egyptians have experienced increases in the price of different goods and services as a result of the flotation of the pound, and cuts in state subsidies.

The government has defended the measures as “unavoidable and overdue” economic reforms and pledged to expand the social protection network for the country’s poorest.

“Life is getting hard. The matters sometimes get worse when the municipal police chase me, saying I have no licence to do my work. I don’t have enough money to support my family. So how can I pay the licence fees then?”

Like other “casual breadwinners”, Saeed’s biggest worry is about lack of financial and healthcare.

“Poor people like us have no pension. Their families can starve if they are forced to stay at home for some days for one reason or another,” he says.

“Medical treatment is another problem because we have no health insurance and cannot afford the high prices of private hospitals. We hope the government will look at us with an eye of mercy.”

In March, President Abdul Fattah Al Sissi addressed the issue of temporary workers in a televised address.

He ordered authorities to take steps that will to give these workers access to social and healthcare insurance.

In response, authorities across the nation have opened registration for these workers as an initial step to insure them.

A group comprising representatives from the ministries of manpower and social security as well as the Trade Union Federation is currently compiling specific figures on these workers, believed to be mainly engaged in construction and farming activities.

State-owned banks, meanwhile, launched low-cost deposit certificates mainly targeting temporary labourers.

pounds is maximum price of bearer certificates for workers

These certificates, called “Aman” (safety) have a renewable three-year maturity with an annual interest rate of 16 per cent. Prices of the certificates range from 500 Egyptian pounds (Dh106) to 2,500 per person.

The bearer is entitled to a monthly pension.

Inheritors are paid compensation of up to 250,000 pounds, depending on the value of the certificate, in case of the bearer’s death.

Banks have reported high demand for the “Aman” certificates, touted as life insurance documents for temporary workers.

The state-owned Misr Bank this week disclosed having issued “Aman” certificates worth a total of 553 million pounds since March.

Mohammad Abdul Qader, who heads the Irregular Workers’ Union, praises Al Sissi for drawing attention to this class of labourers. “President Al Sissi is the first president to talk about the irregular workers and their suffering. His words raise hope for doing justice to them at last,” Abdul Qader said.

The unionist specifies casual workers’ problems as having no social security and healthcare, as well as lacking in legal protection at home or abroad.

“They also suffer from low employment rates due to increase in the price of raw materials. They have no specific agency responsible for getting them jobs,” Abdul Qader told Gulf News.

“Fluctuations in their daily incomes deprive them and their families of a stable life. Therefore, they are living in a constant state of worry about the future.”