Who you callin’ lazy?

In the actual city that never sleeps, 1 am traffic is not an uncommon sight on weekdays. Cairo’s main roads will continue to buzz into the night with families and their (all too) lucid children, and even the sizable parking lot of giant supermarket Hyper One will remain overfilled with shoppers’ cars long past midnight.

The question naturally arises: How does anyone get to work the next day?
According to a UBS bank 2009 global study, titled Prices and Earnings, Cairenes somehow manage it. Not only that, the study reveals that compared to the other 72 international cities examined, residents of Cairo on average work the highest number of hours per year – 2373 hours to be precise.

That’s 471 hours more than the international annual average, and compared to Parisian’s mere 1594 hours per year, Cairene working life borders on herculean.
Add onto that the fact that the number of vacation days in Cairo averaging 13 days a year, which pales in comparison to Munich’s 27 and Lima’s 30, and a second question naturally arises: Who ever said Egyptians were lazy?

Many did, is the short answer; often Egyptians themselves. Yet national pride demands a touch resentment towards the sentiment, as when one Turkish company’s GM recently suggested that Egyptians weren’t the most committed of employees, often “disappearing from work” soon after their job training ends.

However, the influential political economist Adam Smith put it succinctly in his The Wealth of Nations, when he pointed out that if laborers cannot acquire property, they will work as little as possible, and eat as much as they can. Of course, Smith was referring to the inefficiency of slave labor, however given the purchasing power of the average Egyptian, the point still stands.

Looking back at the same UBS study, domestic purchasing power in Cairo is among the lowest in the world, with hourly net pay at 24.1 on an index where New York stands at 100. Likewise, service prices in Cairo, such as hair cut expenses, phone charges and restaurant prices (which are a good indicator of labor cost, and therefore worth), are also among some of the lowest, with a figure of 28.8 on the same index.

Interestingly, the study also notes that on an average Cairene salary, it take 87 minutes of paid work to be able to purchase a Big Mac, compared to 15 minutes in Frankfurt and 12 in Chicago.

Lazy or not, however, and McDonald’s aside, it is clear that “acquiring property” is no easy feat for the working Cairene. And while the resulting inefficiency may be understandable, that’s not to say Egyptians haven’t found clever ways to make money by inventing otherwise unheard of, and truly superfluous, jobs.

For example, one will be hard pressed in a developed country to find any one of find these “for your convenience” employees: the cinema usher, the elevator floor button pressing man, the so-called public bathroom toilet-paper “assistant”, the airport luggage carrier, the petrol station tank filler/hose administrator, and, of course, the sometimes not so helpful parking aid man.

Granted, an unwitting visitor to the country would say Egyptians are indeed lazy if they need someone to press the button on the elevator, or fill their petrol tanks. And yet, these working positions are largely accepted as legitimate by the general society.

And why not? As excessively indulgent as these services may be to the recipients, such jobs have in all likelihood saved hundreds of thousands from unemployment and destitution. Indeed, one elevator man working at a ministerial building in downtown Cairo says he makes LE600 a month, and up to LE1500 in tips – easily three time the average Egyptian salary, yet merely for pressing floor buttons. Likewise, petrol stations can have as many as a dozen tank fillers working 15 hour double shifts, living off the LE1 tip they get from each car they service.

Ultimately, and despite the ingenious use of human resources to scrape off a living, it is always easy to point to laziness as the obvious culprit in a fragile economy. Whether it’s someone losing a battle against obesity, or a country struggling to modernize, laziness is indeed an easy target.

Yet in an economy where the cheapest BMW car costs about the same as the average yearly salary of 43 Egyptians, that same economy sees the latest models of that very brand omnipresent on its streets. Surely something deeper and darker than laziness is at work here.

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