Egypt Pulse

How Egyptian cleaning service seeks to protect migrant workers

Article Summary
The Egyptian startup MerMaid has digitized home cleaning and is working to ensure that migrant and refugee maids are not mistreated.

An Egyptian online platform is offering on-demand booking of home cleaners with the aim of digitizing the market for household services as well as minimizing the possibility of mistreatment and abuse of domestic and foreign workers by homeowners.

MerMaid, a startup that was launched in July 2016, provides a location-based service that allows customers to find home cleaners in a few clicks.

“Our mission is to make cleaning services conveniently accessible to Egyptian households. With MerMaid, finding a cleaner takes only a few clicks,” MerMaid founder Gehad Abdullah, 27, told Al-Monitor.

Abdullah added that MerMaid puts home cleaning in the hands of every Egyptian and helps migrants and refugees find a dignified job.

Abdullah’s startup was incubated by American University in Cairo’s Venture Lab last year and was selected this year to participate in RiseUp Explore’s trip to Berlin’s Tech Open Air conference in July.

The launch signals the beginning of a new trend in Egyptian e-commerce — that of the home-services boom. Customers can log on to MerMaid’s platform and book their appointments by entering a location, choosing a date and time, and paying securely through a company that collects the money after the service is concluded.

MerMaid has also partnered with an insurance company that secures the property’s values from theft. The startup also offers subscription models for people who want to have the same maid come every week.

The service starts at a rate of 200 Egyptian pounds ($11), which changes according to the size of the apartment and the number of rooms. Using technology, MerMaid matches customers with local cleaners. Customers are also able to re-book their favorite cleaners even faster with their preferences saved.

MerMaid now operates in three upscale Cairo districts: Maadi, Zamalek and Mohandessin. The startup, which has a network of 25 cleaners who are mostly migrants and refugees, plans to expand the service to other parts across the country, Abdullah said.

The young entrepreneur added that her startup acts as a middleman between homeowners and domestic or foreign workers — a matter that helps prevent mistreatment and abuse in the workplace. “Actually, the timeframe of cleaning a home mitigates the chances of any kind of abuse. It is highly unlikely that a home cleaner will get sexually or verbally abused during their work mission spanning over three or four hours at maximum,” she noted.

Abdullah added that the home cleaner and the homeowner both give a rating to each other after the service is done. “This also ensures a high-quality service and allows us to know what our clients and home cleaners need and dislike,” she said.

In Egypt, there were 187,838 registered refugees and asylum seekers of more than 50 different nationalities by the end of August 2016, according to data released by the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR.

In Egypt, domestic work is the only type of employment available to the majority of foreign migrants since the Egyptian Labor Law does not allow non-Egyptians to work as employees in Egyptian companies or institutions. The work has also proved to be a crucial source of income for their survival. It has also resulted in more work for women who have become the main breadwinners for their families. Local agencies in Cairo, which usually offer meager salaries, operate to place migrants, refugees and Egyptians into domestic work.

According to a 2007 survey conducted by the Development Research Center of the University of Sussex on migrant and refugee domestic workers in Egypt, 59% of those surveyed said that they had been yelled at, 27% said they had been physically abused and 10% complained about sexual harassment.

However, significant gains have been made in the fight to protect domestic workers in the Arab world. The International Labor Organization’s 2011 Domestic Workers Convention No. 189, which establishes basic rights for domestic workers, was passed with strong support, including from Arab delegates. On the anti-trafficking efforts, countries from the Middle East and North Africa region, including Egypt, have ratified the UN protocol to suppress and combat trafficking in people.

In 2010, the Arab League also endorsed a strategy to combat trafficking and have since implemented an anti-trafficking law. Nonetheless, legal coverage and enforcement remain challenges and much more work needs to be done on this front.

Tiara Martinez, one of MerMaid’s customers, said that such startups turn household services into a formal sector and seek to change the way people treat maids or cleaners in Egypt.

“The sector is very informal and vulnerable. Moreover, many people in Egypt do not treat maids or cleaners as normal employees although they are people who work. What is interesting about MerMaid is that it tries to change that,” Martinez, a 27-year-old American entrepreneur and homeowner, told Al-Monitor.

Martinez also said that what has encouraged her to use the MerMaid service is that the company trains the maids on how to clean, to be punctual and how to treat their customers.

“Our vision is that it is not bad to be a home cleaner and it is not the right of the homeowner to abuse the cleaner in any way,” Abdullah said. “We seek to change that culture and set a model for society and the cleaning agencies here on how we treat our domestic workers and how we create a suitable work environment for them,” she added.

Found in: e-commerce, technology, egyptian society, jobs, abuse, refugees, startup

Menna A. Farouk is an Egyptian journalist who has been writing about social, political and cultural issues in Egypt since 2013. She is an editor at The Egyptian Gazette newspaper. Farouk has covered stories about the unrest that followed the January 2011 revolution, press freedom, immigration and religious reforms. On Twitter: @MennaFarouk91


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