Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
23 - 29 December 1999
Issue No. 461
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Issues navigation Current Issue Previous Issue Back Issues

Front Page

No massaging the figures

By Fatemah Farag

Any discussion on labour is hampered by serious reservations concerning the quantity and quality of available information. A commendable attempt to fill the gap was made between 29-30 November at the conference on "Labour Market and Human Resource Development in Egypt" organised by the Economic Policy Initiative Consortium (EPIC) and the Centre for the Study of Developing Countries (CSDC). The findings of the broad-based survey spanned a decade, from 1988-98, and for the first time charted several different aspects of Egypt's labour market, providing a much-needed sounding board against which economic and social policies can be measured.

"The Egyptian government is creating 650,000 job opportunities, 150,000 of which are in the government. This may or may not be a return to the policy of job provision but the important point is that the initiative underlines the dangers attached to unemployment, especially among young people. Hence, the importance of the studies presented," explained Mustafa Kamel El-Sayed, director of CSDC.

Employment patterns, labour mobility, public and private sector job creation -- all have undergone radical change during a decade of economic reform programmes. Yet it remains by no means clear whether these changes have been an outcome of economic liberalisation or the accumulated result of earlier developments, said professor of economics at Cairo University Mahmoud Abdel-Fadil.

While participants lamented that cause and effect were almost totally ignored in the survey's findings, many of the studies provide invaluable insights into socio-economic developments on the ground.

Take, for example, the findings presented by Ragui Assaad, professor at the Humphries Institute of Public Affairs, University of Minnesota, who coordinated the labour market research project under the auspices of EPIC. In his overview of changes in the main labour market aggregates and rates in Egypt over the ten year period 1988-1998, Assaad finds that of those entering the job market in the past ten years, only one out of every three entrants found a job. Further, a large percentage of these jobs were to be found within the government and specifically the Ministry of Education. And within the private sector, it was found, 80 per cent of those employed enjoy no legal protection. "This research should help in evaluating policies aimed at increasing youth employment, such as microcredit and financing," said Assaad.

"While it is true that the papers do not make the connection between the economic and the social, the findings do show that after eight years of structural adjustment programmes there have been negative effects and that these policies have not resulted in the hoped-for job creation," added El-Sayed.

The comprehensive scope of the project was illustrated by the diversity of topics covered by papers -- the transformation of the labour market 1988-1998; informalisation of labour; the status of women in the labour market; small enterprise promotion and its effectiveness in employment creation and the impact of microcredit programmes on the poor; the absorption capacity of the informal sector in addition to issues related to child labour and education.

Many present, though, questioned the validity of some of the findings. A paper on child labour, which claimed that the number of child workers had decreased by half, came under particularly heavy fire.

Despite the fact that EPIC is a USAID funded body and part of the Private Sector Support project, most important findings at the conference shed a far from positive light on current trends in capital development. For example, it was found that capital intensive investments being made in Egypt today use advanced technologies and are thus not labour intensive, while medium and small-sized enterprises, which are in fact major employers, receive inadequate support or attention by policy makers.

A warning was sounded by Abdel-Fadil on what the implications of the survey meant for resolving Egypt's unemployment problem. "The government remains the main employer, providing 42 per cent of job opportunities, compared to 33.8 per cent provided by the non-agricultural private sector. But given the declining prospects of government employment [due to privatisation] a major challenge lies ahead. As privatisation and liberalisation are implemented, who is it that will resolve Egypt's unemployment problem?"


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