In the years since the COVID-19 pandemic, Egypt’s side gig economy has encompassed increasingly broad strands of the workforce. More and more, this includes young, single university graduates.
For decades, it has been common in Egyptian households for both wife and husband to work two or more jobs to make ends meet. Low-income workers have long been pushed into precarious work arrangements, with no social security, benefits, or even guarantee of compensation. These fraught structures of informality can often lead manual workers to take on an overwhelming amount of work.
Rising inflation has translated to increasingly long hours and financial precarity for Egyptian women in particular, who are the primary breadwinners in 30 percent of households — a percentage which rises conversely to socioeconomic status. Simply put, having to take on side jobs to supplement an insufficient salary is nothing new to Egypt’s low-income citizens.
Since the pandemic, however, the side gig economy has seen rapid expansion and is no longer restricted to low-income individuals nor even to those providing for a family. Today, both local and international job search engines advertise a myriad of freelance translation, editing, and copywriting jobs in Egypt, requiring educational attainment and a fairly specialized skill set.
Despite having the benefit of limited financial responsibilities, higher education, and formal employment, many young professionals are taking on the above positions as secondary part-time or freelance jobs, for a number of reasons.
Supplementing a depleting salary
There are various reasons why young people of relative privilege choose to take on one or more side jobs, the most obvious being to maintain their standards of living amid high annual inflation, which now stands at 21.26 percent.
“[My salary] is enough to sustain my main expenses, but I need to budget really carefully,” Farah Galal, a 24 year old economic researcher, tells Egyptian Streets.
Galal lives with her parents and does not have to pay for rent or groceries. Her primary expenses are gas for a shared family car, bills and utilities, food and veterinary costs for her cat, and outings.
Prior to the devaluation of the Egyptian pound, she would either save the money earned from her side job, namely carrying out freelance translation and editing assignments, or use it to pay for additional leisure, but she is now finding this difficult.
While her workplace did provide a standard annual raise, Galal says some things she could previously afford on her salary alone are no longer accessible without additional income.
“[Domestic] travel isn’t really an option,” Galal explains. “Feeding stray cats is becoming hard. It’s something I try to make work anyway, but I can’t do it as frequently. I definitely have to budget more tightly in general […] I’m also trying to have some savings, but that’s not really working out.”
As a result, she has been seeking out more freelancing opportunities online, and does not see complete financial independence as an option for the time being.
Measures have been put in place by Egypt’s National Council for Wages to help private sector employees, such as Galal, cope with inflation. As of January 2023, they include a rise in minimum wage from EGP 2400 to 2700 and an annual bonus equivalent to 3 percent of an employee’s gross salary.
Companies are also mandated by Egypt’s current labor law to provide their employees with a 7 percent annual salary raise. An employee’s wages may be subject to higher raises if stipulated in their contract, in company regulations, or if made customary by their place of employment.
Nonetheless, a survey published by human resources consulting firm Mercer in August 2022 found that only 22 percent of companies were taking measures to help their employees cope with the devaluation of the Egyptian pound, whether by raising salaries or giving out temporary allowances.
The remaining companies had implemented no measures at the time of publication. Moreover, nearly half of respondents said they were unsure as to what support they would provide to their staff, leaving these employees with diminishing purchasing power.
Gaining and maintaining financial independence
A study published by the Economic Research Forum showed that educated youth in Egypt and the wider region have experienced increasingly fraught and delayed transitions to adulthood in the past decade.
Reasons for this include a mismatch between educational attainment and labor market demand, and rising costs of living which wages have not risen to meet, delaying the possibility of financial independence. For those who do manage to become fully independent from their families, a side job can be an important source of security, or become the only way to stay afloat.
Malak Mohamed* is employed at a non-governmental organization (NGO), where her work focuses on criminal justice and gender. She lives alone and does not receive financial support from her family.
“When I didn’t have a side job, I was struggling,” she recounts. “I still had the privilege of living alone and covering my needs, but it was difficult considering the current economic situation.”
Although she says her workplace took measures to help employees cope with inflation, Mohamed found it challenging to make ends meet on her primary income.
“Things like going out or socializing weren’t really on the table,” she explains. “So I spent a while in a sort of isolation, budgeting and adjusting my spending habits exactly to my basic needs. […] In terms of essentials, I had to make sure to choose the cheapest options and ration my consumption of certain things.”
To supplement her salary, Mohamed took on extra tasks at her workplace for additional pay and sought freelance gigs through friends and colleagues. This consisted primarily of video content creation and editing, as Mohamed has a background in film.
Nonetheless, she still found herself needing to borrow money, and is still repaying some of the debt she accumulated during those months when she had trouble making ends meet.
Things remained precarious until she found a part-time job as a data entry specialist for another NGO based abroad. This second job, where she is paid in US dollars, has been a transformative source of stability for the 27-year-old.
“[The fact that I get paid in dollars] has made a huge difference considering the current economic situation,” she explains. “[…] There’s a big difference between [my financial situation] before and after taking this second job, in terms of what I can spend on or can’t.”
Nurturing skills or pursuing unfulfilled interests
Mohamed, for instance, says her second job is not only an important income source, but also well in line with her desired career path.
“The organization itself does good work and I wanted to contribute to it,” she explains. “Hopefully, later on, this can lead to more work [beside data entry].”
Galal, for her part, finds that her side jobs have provided a chance to sharpen her Arabic writing skills, and says that “practicing translation has also come in handy in [her] current job and in [the job application process].”
In some cases, side gigs can also be a way to pursue unfulfilled interests or study areas, especially those which do not easily translate to full-time employment nor offer clear avenues for monetization.
Menna Dessoky is a senior associate at a multinational consulting firm and holds degrees in computer science and literature. Before she was hired in her current position, Dessoky frequently took on freelance writing, translation, and transcription work to help secure her transition to financial independence.
While she says her current salary is enough to cover her expenses along with some leisure, the 24-year-old still pursues freelance writing opportunities as one way to nurture her passion for words and put her own writing out into the world.
“I wanted to stay connected with literature somehow; […] the articles I write are more creative pieces than anything else,” she says. “I didn’t want there to be value assigned to this work, but at the same time, I wanted people to see it.”
Dessoky says she is not yet sure if she hopes to turn literature into a full-time occupation; although doing so would undoubtedly be difficult.
A study carried out by the Egyptian Center for Economic Studies reveals discrepancies in demand between different work sectors in Egypt. Together with customer service, the tech sector accounted for about 44 percent of total demand for non-manual labor in Egypt in the first quarter of 2022.
Meanwhile, education, which is the primary field of employment for literature graduates, ranked last with only 2 percent of demand. For many with a background in the humanities, labor market demand dictates that they take on jobs in other fields, such as customer service and call center work, and pursue their passions on the side until better opportunities arise.
Time management, scammers, and other obstacles
Whether they are a means to achieve financial prosperity or pursue career goals, working multiple jobs can easily lead to time management problems, burnout, and adverse mental health impacts.
Mohamed told Egyptian Streets that she is still reeling from the pressure she experienced in recent months, for which she is seeking mental health treatment.
“I’m coming out of a period of burnout at the moment, and I deal with it by going to therapy,” she says. “I try to talk through it with my therapist, I try to find techniques to deal with my burnout in the short-term.”
In the long term, she hopes to arrange a two-week vacation from work, but says her ability to do so will depend on how much time she puts in at her second job, where she is paid by the hour. She also does not foresee her work schedule becoming much less hectic in the near future.
“I started this new job at a time when I was in a transitional period at my full-time job. Currently, I don’t have much free time. […] My expectation, though, is that even when things settle down I won’t have that much free time regardless,” she notes.
Another obstacle faced especially by those who seek side jobs online is the prevalence of scams, which range from dishonest employers failing to compensate freelancers for their work, to having them unknowingly engage in fraud.
Dessoky, who finds freelance work primarily through LinkedIn, says she is selective about taking on assignments, and will carefully judge whether a gig is legitimate based on the employer’s reputation and feedback from connections. This approach, however, is not foolproof.
“I went into [work with one translation and transcription client] because a friend recommended it to me,” she recounts. “She had done work for them previously and they had paid her. They also paid me at first, but then just stopped paying even though they owed me money.”
Dessoky’s story is a common one, with most freelancers falling prey to scams at some point in their careers.
Despite these potential obstacles, in recent years, young people have increasingly felt it important to monetize their skills or interests, whether as a way to earn extra income or to legitimize their passions.
“I don’t feel like I’ve faced specific pressure to turn [translation] into something I can monetize, but I think there definitely is a pressure to monetize [your interests] in general,” says Galal. “If you have something you can use to make additional income, there’s definitely social pressure to do that.”
The side gig economy today encompasses growing segments of society as a result of both economic pressures and changing social expectations. This growing tendency to work longer hours has nuanced impacts on young people’s well-being.
On the one hand, side gigs can be an empowering source of income and career advancement. One study carried out by information services company Nielsen I Q reported increasingly positive attitudes towards entrepreneurship among young Egyptians, who say side jobs increased their independence and self-confidence.
On the other hand, in the current economic climate, a growing number of young professionals are pushed into them out of varying degrees of necessity rather than entrepreneurial spirit. In such cases, side gigs can quickly become more synonymous with burnout than empowerment.
*Real names have been changed due to privacy reasons.