Maghreb's informal sector struggles to cope with viral shutdown

The coronavirus pandemic has left governments worldwide scrambling to rescue their economies.
Thursday 26/03/2020
Moroccan authorities instruct people to remain at home as a measure against the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, in Rabat's district of Takadoum, on March 25. (AFP)
Tough times for all. Moroccan authorities instruct people to remain at home as a measure against the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, in Rabat's district of Takadoum, on March 25. (AFP)

RABAT - In Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco, workers in informal jobs fear not only the novel coronavirus but how they will survive emergency measures that have cut off their livelihoods.

"We are stuck at home with no work and no pay," said Hakim, a 30-year-old father who, until mid-March, worked in a bar-restaurant in Rabat. His boss told employees he wouldn't pay them for March and Hakim said they can't do anything about it.

Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia, like many other countries worldwide, announced strict measures to confront the COVID-19 pandemic. Police and soldiers patrol deserted roads, cafes and restaurants have closed, street vendors have disappeared and small businesses have pulled down their shutters.

The three Maghreb countries have a combined population of approximately 90 million.

Among them are millions who work in informal, undeclared or precarious employment lacking social protection, from day labourers to street vendors, craftspeople to cleaners, caretakers to construction workers.

"There are no more clients," said Mohamed, a self-employed plumber and father of three from a working-class neighbourhood of Rabat. "At the same time, the price of vegetables has soared."

The situation is particularly critical in Morocco, where informal employment is estimated at almost 80% of the workforce. That compares to 63% in Algeria and almost 59% in Tunisia, the International Labour Organisation said, citing figures from 2018.

In Mohammedia, on Morocco's west coast, Abdelkebir, like many informal parking attendants, used to live on tips. Now, work has dried up with virus-related movement restrictions.

"I don't earn anything anymore," the man in his 60s said.

The coronavirus pandemic has left governments worldwide scrambling to rescue their economies.

A special economic council in Morocco adopted measures to help cushion the effects of the anti-coronavirus measures.

Assistance includes fiscal support for businesses, monthly allowances of 2,000 dirhams (around $200) for employees with social security who lose their jobs, as well as deferred repayments on loans for individuals and businesses.

Moroccan Economy Minister Mohamed Benchaaboun said that "accompanying measures for the approximately 4 million households in the informal sector are being discussed" and should be implemented soon.

The money will come from an emergency fund of more than $2.5 billion financed by the state and donations from businesses and individuals.

Tunisia has struggled to respond to its people's social expectations almost a decade since the country's uprising, with mass unemployment and inflation at 7%. Since the coronavirus crisis began, Tunisia announced an $860 million fund for business and individuals, including $51.9 million in allowances for the poorest.

However, Abdeljelil Bedoui, a member of NGO the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights, said lists of poor families didn't include self-employed and precarious workers.

"It will take time and falls short of real needs," he said.

In Algeria, where the informal sector is estimated to represent 40-50% of GDP, public transport has been suspended.

Of the three North African countries, Algeria has been the hardest-hit by the novel coronavirus, with 230 officially declared cases, including 17 deaths, figures available March 25 stated.

A partial lockdown was announced March 23 for Algiers and the region of Blida, which has seen the worst outbreak.

Online, many say that, with no wages or savings, they can't last a week without work.

"Who will feed us? Who will keep us alive? We can't even buy masks or sanitiser to protect ourselves," said Zohra, a 50-year-old mother of four whose husband is unemployed. She sells bread, couscous and biscuits on the streets of Algiers for a living and fears having to stop work.

Hayet, a cleaning lady who also helps the elderly in their homes, said she was praying "to get through this alive and that this illness of misfortune will be gone quickly" so she could return to work again.

She has no formal contract and can no longer reach her employers' homes because of the lack of transport. She said March 23 was her last day of work.

(AFP)