Egypt seeks to crack down on foreign workers

Julia Simon May 10, 2011

Egypt seeks to crack down on foreign workers

Julia Simon May 10, 2011

Kai Ryssdal: You know how we’ve been talking about inflation lately? How — yes, apart from gas and food — there really isn’t any?

There’s something similar happening in a lot of developing economies. Egypt released its inflation figures today — better than 12 percent overall, led by sharply higher costs for food. It’s a sign, analysts say, that some of the economic pressures that led to the protests in Tahrir Square in January and February are still there. Rising prices was one of those factors. Not enough jobs was, and is, another. Because as things have calmed down in Cairo, foreign workers who left have started to go back.

Julia Simon reports now from Cairo.

Julia Simon: A group of workers sew mini fleece children’s sweaters at a garment factory in Cairo.

Emad Mahdy is the general manager.

Emad Mahdy: All the work made here goes to America — 100 percent of it.

This is the Masr Taiwan garment factory — “Taiwan” because one of the owners is Taiwanese. The majority of the 550 employees here are Egyptian, but there are also many foreign workers — ncluding Ansur Rahaman. He makes a shirt on the sewing machine. He’s been an employee at the factory for 3 years.

Ansur Rahama: I am from Bangladesh, Dhaka.

Rahaman’s one of 32 Bangladeshis at the factory. There are no official numbers for how many foreigners have jobs in Egypt. But every day at a government building in Cairo, groups of foreigners come to get work papers, like these two Nigerians. Permits for foreign workers in Egypt is a shady business. It often involves bribery and paying people under the table.

Salama Megahed is an immigration lawyer I met during this story and he asked if I could help find him a maid. I’ve lived in Indonesia.

Salama Megahed: Indonesian girl.

Simon: Indonesian girl? I don’t know any. I mean, I know them, but why do you need them?

Megahed: Because I want one girl to serve in home.

Simon: Mmm. Do you have visas for them?

Megahed: Yes, I can do.

Simon: You can get visas?

Megahed: Yes, I can do. If you can refer 10 or 20 or 100 — OK.

Simon: 100?

Megahed: Yes, or 200. It’s no problem.

The new Egyptian government sees this as a problem. They want to crack down on the number of foreign workers in Egypt.

Ahmed el-Borai is the new Minister for Manpower and Immigration and he says the country is going to start enforcing rules that the old government used to ignore.

Ahmed el-Borai: First rule is that you can’t employ a foreigner when you could hire an Egyptian. Second rule is that if you employ a foreign worker, you have to train two Egyptians.

The minister says that with Egypt’s unemployment figures — officially at 10 percent, but unofficially much higher — it doesn’t make any sense to employ foreigners.

El-Borai: We have now such a high rate of unemployment, if we open the door to foreign workers we are only going to make it worse.

All of the clothes at Masr Taiwan garment factory go to America. (Credit: Julia Simon/Marketplace)

But workers at Masr Taiwan log more than 60 hours a week and tend to only make between $120-150 a month. General Manager Emad Mahdy says that higher wages are critical. But he says the government needs to focus on another pressing problem. Fixing the bribery and embezzlement that often happens in the Egyptian workplace.

Mahdy: The corruption is the number one problem. It’s everywhere. The problem isn’t the foreign workers.

And Emad says you can’t just blame foreigners for local corruption.

In Cairo, I’m Julia Simon for Marketplace.

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