Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
11 - 17 May 2000
Issue No. 481
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Women's work

By Fatemah Farag

WomanIt is 7.00am in front of a ready-made garments factory in Shubra Al-Kheima. Droves of young women, clutching little money purses tightly in their hands are making their way through the factory gates to begin a long day's work. "We must be at our machines at 7:30am and work goes on to seven or eight at night. Each one of us is responsible for a specific section in the garment, such as a hem or a button, and I usually process 700 to 800 pieces per day and make between one to two piastres a piece," explained 23-year-old Fatheya.

Fatheya is part of a new generation of women workers who have found job opportunities in the new private sector textile factories. "It is good to have the opportunity to make some money, but I hope that once I am married my husband will make enough money to keep me at home. My back hurts all the time from bending over the machine for such long hours," she said.

According to the most recent Human Development Report issued by the UN, in 1998/1999, women constituted 15 per cent of the labour force. This indicates a decline from figures published by the Central Authority for Mobilisation and Statistics (CAPMAS) in 1996, which show that, between 1984 and 1994, women represented 22 per cent of the labour force. Further, according to the 1996 Labour Sample Survey, issued by CAPMAS, the highest unemployment rates are among women. The survey documented that between 1988 and 1995, for every five unemployed men, there were 20 unemployed women.

"The highest unemployment rates are among women despite the government's policy to encourage women's work. The general environment is against her working and reflects a very different attitude from that of the sixties, when women were very much encouraged to become prominent players in development," said Aisha Abdel-Hadi, member of the executive council of the General Federation of Trade Unions (GFTU) for women's affairs.

The context of this change in attitude is provided by Fardos El-Bahnasi, social researcher and director of the Women's Development and Empowerment Association in the working class district of Manshiet Nasser. "When women were encouraged to work in the sixties, social services to help her out in her role within the family were not provided. The result was that women took on a double burden. This has not been a positive experience and young girls who have seen their mothers carry this burden will feel that the better option is to choose only one of these roles," explained El-Bahnasi. Add this to working conditions such as those described by Fatheya and the attitude cannot be expected to be very positive.

But, of course, what drives people into the job market is not so much prevalent attitudes as material need. According to official statistics, the largest percentage of women's work is in the informal agricultural sector, while 32 per cent is in the government, with the private sector accounting for only 16 per cent. "Much of women's work is unpaid, such as when she works in agricultural fields for the family. It is also difficult to determine the exact number of women actually working outside the home," explained Samia Assal of the Union for Agricultural Workers.

El-Bahnasi adds that even in the formal sectors, since employers do not always register the total number of workers to evade social security payments, the figures available are bound to be inconclusive. "Still, we can see that there are factories, such as those for ready-made garments, which employ women almost exclusively. These are the women who are driven onto the job market as a result of extreme poverty," said El-Bahnasi. Abdel-Hadi completes the description of the vicious circle faced by female labourers, "With high unemployment in women's ranks and because of their need, there is bound to be violation of the law which stipulates equal wages, social and health insurance for both genders."

The women interviewed by Al-Ahram Weekly on their way to work in Shubra Al-Kheima had not heard of legal protection, or even the GFTU, for that matter. "In the security room, there is a framed copy of the Ministerial Regulation for Women's Work. It has nothing to do with our lives," one said.

El-Bahnasi points out that women are treated as inferior on the job because they are, for the most part, unskilled labour and also because their work is considered only a supplement to family income. "This last point is of particular importance since official statistics show that one quarter of women in Egypt are the sole supporters of their families," she said.

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