Egypt: Coronavirus construction woes

Ahmed Abdel-Hafez, Thursday 9 Apr 2020

The government’s decision to resume work at the country’s construction sites aims to save the sector’s 10 million workers from joblessness

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A construction site in the New Administrative Capital (photo: AFP)

Egypt’s construction sector resumed operations earlier this week after a two-week stoppage meant to help curb the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Workers have returned to the country’s construction sites provided that sanitation measures are fully implemented to preserve their health, according to an agreement between the minister of housing and the Egyptian Federation for Construction and Building Contractors (EFCBC) under the supervision of the prime minister.

Work at the country’s mega-projects came to a halt after President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi urged people to adopt social distancing on 22 March. A host of measures followed, including the temporary suspension of classes in schools and universities and of prayers at mosques and churches.

A two-week partial curfew was imposed restricting movement from 7pm to 6am, and a “Stay at Home” campaign was launched to raise awareness about the Covid-19 threat. The measures have resulted in a reduction of the workforce at construction sites, with some operating with 25 per cent of their usual number of workers and others functioning with as little as 10 per cent of their workforce.

“Halting operations at construction sites was due to a confusion among construction companies about the best means to implement social distancing after the rise in the number of cases of coronavirus in Egypt over the past three weeks,” said Hisham Yousri, secretary-general of the EFCBC.

One source of confusion was the decision by the Central Bank of Egypt (CBE) to limit daily cash withdrawals and deposits to LE5,000 for individuals and LE50,000 for companies.

Although the CBE raised cash withdrawal limits for companies to 10 times those of individuals to keep salaries flowing, its decision negatively affected the construction sector whose workers typically receive daily or weekly payments, unlike employees in other sectors who receive their wages on a monthly basis.

The decision to stop the construction work was also not only taken by the companies concerned. Construction workers, most of whom are not covered by insurance, were also concerned at the news of the rising number of cases of coronavirus and the sanitation measures being taken by the Armed Forces at sites across Egypt.

Calls to impose a partial curfew across all sectors were heard by the government, which ordered a partial curfew. This was an additional concern for irregular and seasonal workers, who number between eight and 10 million and do not have a fixed monthly income, since it could mean they would be out of their jobs.

It placed the government in the difficult situation of needing to contain the spread of the virus by introducing mitigation measures, while at the same time aiming to ensure that workers in the construction and other sectors do not suffer severe economic consequences.

In the private construction sector, reactions to the coronavirus crisis have been divided, with some companies giving employees in administrative and engineering departments fully paid leave or leave with 50 per cent of salary and others reducing working hours and laying off a percentage of employees. However, these options have not been available to site workers.

The private-sector construction companies will likely be unable to continue paying their administrative and engineering employees half or all their wages, said Mohamed Loqma, a member of the EFCBC board. The companies have regular financial commitments including insurance, taxes, utility bills, and the rent of buildings and equipment. They will also be under pressure to keep to deadlines for finishing their projects, Loqma said.

Negotiations have been taking place between the minister of housing, utilities, and new urban communities. Assem Al-Gazzar, who is supervising the work of the EFCBC, and the construction companies working on the national mega-projects, particularly the New Administrative Capital and New Alamein.

The talks ended with Al-Gazzar requesting the construction companies to resume work at the project sites under the observation of the Health Ministry and the ministry’s health and safety division to follow up on developments and preserve the health of workers.

Loqma said the decision to resume work at the sites had not been taken to advance the construction work but had been in response to the need to continue to pay the wages of the 10 million workers in the sector and secure their livelihoods.

The message the government had received over the past two weeks was that the country’s irregular workforce was facing the blunt choice of risking contracting the disease if they continued to work or suffering economically if they did not, Loqma said. It was for this reason that the government had ordered work on the construction sites to resume under appropriate medical supervision, he added.

Yousri said that it was vital for construction to resume because it is a labour-intensive sector on which some 90 other industries depend, including the steel and cement industries and those providing other construction materials and equipment. Utilities and infrastructure would also be affected by a prolonged shutdown, he said, as would the transport sector, which would no longer be delivering people to work sites or transporting construction materials.

He also noted the importance of supporting the incomes of workers in the sector, adding that President Al-Sisi has postponed the inauguration of the mega-projects and the transfer of government offices to the New Administrative Capital from mid-2020 to 2021, with the government shouldering the financial costs of the delay.

He said that if the decision to resume work in the construction sector had been based on a desire to complete the projects, the contractors and construction companies would have imposed the same deadlines as before the crisis, which was not the case.

The EFCBC is looking into measures to ensure the safety of workers on construction sites, such as making the sites isolated areas and keeping the workers at the sites before placing them in two-week quarantine. They would then be able to return to the work sites after undergoing similar medical measures to those adopted at airports.

It suggests isolating areas on sites where construction materials are delivered and avoiding contacts between transport workers and workers on site.

If such measures are applied, the EFCBC estimates that 70 per cent of the workforce will be able to resume operations, achieving the government’s target of containing increases in unemployment and protecting families from sinking below the poverty line as a result of work stoppages.

*A version of this article appears in print in the  9 April, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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