The Real News Network is co-publishing this piece with the Progressive International.
In 2021, the American retail giant Amazon officially announced it was going into business in Egypt. This move came after it acquired Souq.com in 2017 which, after launching in Dubai in 2005, had become the largest e-commerce platform in the Arab world.
While Souq.com started as a small auction site, it developed into an online marketplace connecting sellers and buyers before turning into a fully integrated retail site and expanding its activities in the markets of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates. During those years, the company’s market value rose to $1 billion USD, offering nearly 40 million products on its sites in the Arab region. As Amazon was keen to expand in Africa and the Middle East and open up a big new segment of customers, the acquisition of Souq.com seemed like a natural next step.
In the months that followed Amazon announcing its start of operations in Egypt, management in Cairo announced the availability of 3,000 new jobs in various departments — in addition to keeping the old workforce after its acquisition of Souq.com — attracting hundreds of white and blue collar workers.
Shortly after the announcement, Walid Tawfiq* sent his CV to the company’s website for a job in customer service as he is fluent in more than one foreign language, including German. Before taking up the job at Amazon, Tawfiq — who had turned 30 a couple of months earlier — was employed in customer service by a company exporting electronics through an outsourcing system. He was attracted by the company’s global brand and wanted to seize the opportunity to work in a multinational corporation that would provide him with a comfortable income and help him meet the needs of his small family.
From Menoufia to New Cairo
Indeed, the generous salary that Tawfiq received from Amazon exceeded his personal aspirations. In the third month of the company’s entry into the Egyptian market, Tawfiq started his job at Amazon’s administrative headquarters in Cairo Festival City in the Fifth Settlement, with a monthly salary of 12,000 Egyptian pounds (around $400 USD). With this salary, Tawfiq thought that he had taken a big step in his working life — he had received half of that amount in his previous company. However, his sense of optimism diminished over time, as his new job imposed expenses on him that limited his ability to save. Moreover, the nature of the work itself caused considerable health and psychological pressure.**
Unlike in his previous job, Amazon required mandatory attendance at its offices, meaning Tawfiq had to move to Cairo Festival City to live close to his new job. This made his cost of living rise remarkably and devoured the biggest chunk of his new wage. The cost of renting an apartment in eastern Cairo next to the offices in particular made a dent in his budget, compared to when he used to live in the Menoufia neighborhood in the northwest of Cairo with his family. Every week, he is now forced to travel to Menoufia to spend his time off with his wife and two daughters.
“The salary stands out in relation to the market and the company offers great benefits to employees in terms of social and health insurance, but with the increase in the price of the dollar against the Egyptian pound and the high prices, the salary is no longer high,” Tawfiq told al-Manassa after nearly a year of working at Amazon Egypt.
The year 2022 and the first days of 2023 witnessed three strong devaluations of the local currency, increasing the official exchange rate of the US dollar from about 15 Egyptian pounds at the beginning of 2022, to more than 24 Egyptian pounds. The exchange markets started the new year with new declines for the Egyptian pound, until the price of the dollar had reached about 30 Egyptian pounds.
Like Amazon workers around the world, Tawfiq and his colleagues demanded higher wages in line with rising inflation. The management did offer a minor wage increase below the growing cost of living, according to Tawfiq.
He also criticized the suffering of workers in customer service. The job impacts workers’ health and safety by putting a strain on their hearing. Sometimes the company reacts to such complaints, sometimes it ignores them, he said.
“Whoever gets tired and is unable to put on the headset gets rest from the calls and receives responses to customer requests through the site’s chat. But then the company forces them to return after two days to his work with the headset again.”
Better than others
Muhammad Omar* has a longer history in the company, as he joined Souq.com six years earlier, before it turned into Amazon. During that period, he was working in the sales and marketing departments, until he moved to the communication department.
The transfer of management from Souq.com to Amazon in 2017 did not pose great concern to Omar, as had gained enough experience working in various departments of the most popular e-commerce platform in the Middle East. This qualified him to complete the process with the new management without a major change in the contractual relationship. Indeed, his salary increased stably over the past years.
Omar feels the difference with Amazon: “Working at Amazon differs from Souq.com in terms of the high technical capabilities and programs added by the new management, which increased our production capabilities. Despite the intense pressures we are subjected to in order to reach a high degree of professionalism, we have many advantages and a conducive and motivating work environment.”
Amazon was particularly interested in expanding its communication team. The opening of a large customer service center in October 2022 — providing 1,600 job opportunities in customer service, data analysis, quality management, and training departments — was part of a larger expansion to cover the needs of its customers in the Arab region, in addition to foreign markets such as Germany and Australia.
However, salaries seem modest compared to the current cost of living. Omar explains that the salaries of the company’s Arabic communication department, which is tasked with receiving requests and responding to their customers’ complaints, range between 4,000 and 6,000 Egyptian pounds, while the salaries of those who speak foreign languages range between 10,000 and 15,000 Egyptian pounds.
As Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi stated repeatedly this year, “anyone who works for less than 10,000 pounds cannot live.” So at best, Amazon wages provide the bare minimum in terms of basic living expenses for the middle class.
But, Omar said, Amazon’s wages stand out as they are higher than wages offered by many other companies, while the company provides extra benefits too.
“The company insures us with the highest insurance value according to salaries, and allows us to include our entire family in health insurance, which is what distinguishes the company from any other place we worked in,” Omar continues.
Rough hands wages
However, the picture does not look as rosy in other, more physical jobs such as packaging. Hundreds of warehouse workers in the company’s fulfillment center in the 10th of Ramadan City, which has a storage capacity of more than 2.4 million cubic feet, don’t make more than 4,000 Egyptian pounds (around $130 USD) — for working 22 days a month, at a rate of 10 hours per day, including an hour of rest.
In 2020, the official statistics agency in Egypt determined that in order for an individual to be above the poverty line, they would need 857 Egyptian pounds per month. However, that number has not been updated with the extremely high inflation rates the country has witnessed from 2020 until now.
With the opening of the fulfillment center in September 2021, the company attracted many workers who live in the industrial city and its outskirts. The number of producing factories in the city, according to the statements of the Minister of Housing Assem El-Gazzar, is 2,997, in addition to 13 small industrial complexes that include 2,522 industrial units.
Ahmed Abdel Tawab*, one of the warehouse workers who joined the company during the current year, earns a salary of 3,450 pounds. That’s the salary for workers on the evening shift, while the salary of those on the morning shift does not exceed 3,000 pounds. The wage increases by a few hundred pounds with work on weekends.
Workers at the employment offices in the 10th of Ramadan told al-Manassa that, since the launch of its warehouse, Amazon has provided many job opportunities for its residents in the packaging and storage sector, with salaries ranging from 3,000 to 4,000 pounds with insurance, while indicating that the company provides apartments for its expatriate workers from outside the 10th of Ramadan, like Belbeis and Sharkia.
Abdel Tawab, a father of two, is forced to sacrifice his weekly time off to earn approximately 5,000 pounds per month, which allows him to fulfill his family obligations. “The basic salary is very low. It is not sufficient for food and drink expenses and electricity bills, that is why I work six days a week, and sometimes even seven if it is allowed.”
Abdel Tawab got his job at Amazon through one of the employment offices on the 10th of Ramadan, and he did not hesitate to accept it despite the low wages of warehouse workers. After a 3-month unemployment period, he needed the job.
With the inflation rate in Egyptian cities reaching 18.7% in November 2022, the highest level since December 2017, the glamor of the Amazon brand no longer makes workers live comfortably — at least not without increasing salaries to accommodate rising prices.
* Pseudonym at the source’s request.
** The interviews were conducted with the workers during November 2022.
This story was originally published in al-Manassa. The English translation has been slightly edited for clarity.