Economic Research Forum (ERF)

Who can work from home in MENA?

680
Which jobs can be done from home, who does them and how prevalent are they in different countries? This column reports evidence on working from home in over 50 countries, including Egypt, Jordan and Tunisia.

In a nutshell

Why certain regions or types of workers have jobs less amenable to working from home is a key issue for the design of public policies.

There would be substantial benefits from improving access to digital technologies in MENA, both in normal times and during the pandemic.

But since the adoption of new technologies does not happen overnight – especially when the baseline level is very low as in the MENA region – a broader response stimulating the economy and supporting those who cannot find a job is key.

With the spread of Covid-19 and the implementation of social distancing measures, identifying who can work from home has become a critical question.

In a new article, we estimate who has the jobs more amenable to working from home in 53 countries, including three from the Middle East and North Africa (MENA).

Out of those three, we find that Jordan ranks best in terms of its jobs’ amenability to working from home, Egypt is at middle and Tunisia at the bottom. This is not surprising given that Jordan has a much higher rate of internet penetration, a factor that is critical to working from home.

But there are dramatic differences within countries as well. Less educated, older and informal workers are substantially less likely to have jobs amenable to working from home in each of the three countries.

This is driven by less educated and informal workers having jobs more intensive in physical tasks that cannot be done at home, and by older workers being less likely to use information and communication technologies (ICT).

Women in MENA have jobs more amenable to working from home. This is because women have jobs less intensive in physical tasks that are more likely to be location-specific and thereby cannot be done at home. Accordingly, they are more likely to use ICT at work than men. But these patterns across genders should be interpreted with caution, since our results do not consider other important factors driving gender differences during the pandemic.

First, the probability of working in a sector considered ‘essential’ may be different across genders. Jobs in construction, agriculture and transport tend to be dominated by mean, and also rank low in their amenability to working from home (see chart), but they have typically been considered ‘essential’ in several economies. That is, workers in those sectors can usually keep their jobs despite being unable to work from home.

Second, gender-biased social norms regarding the division of childcare or home schooling in the family may affect women’s jobs disproportionately. Even in the United States, a recent survey shows that while almost half of men say they do most of the home schooling, only 3% of women agree.

In addition to providing new stylised facts, our estimates can help shed light on why certain regions or types of workers have jobs less amenable to working from home, which is a key issue for the design of public policies.

For example, the policy response would be very different if the low amenability to working from home is driven by jobs being too physically intensive rather than by people not using ICT at work. If the former is true, policies to help workers find another occupation or to provide income-support might be more adequate.

In contrast, if the amenability to working from home is low because people do not use ICT at work to conduct interpersonal tasks, then policies that give firms incentives to use more ICT or to increase digital literacy among workers might be the way to go.

Finally, if people cannot work from home because they lack internet connectivity at home, the policy response would be to address the bottlenecks that keep people from connecting online.

The benefits of improving access to digital technologies in MENA cannot be emphasised more, both in normal times and during the pandemic. In fact, a recent study shows that the rapid rollout of mobile broadband in Jordan since 2010 had dramatic impacts on female labour force participation, and on the employment rates of skilled women. Moreover, higher internet access was also linked with a reduction in gender-biased social norms, early marriage and fertility.

But the adoption of new technologies does not happen overnight, especially when the baseline level is very low as in the MENA region – less than half of the workers in the three countries we analysed have internet access at home and only 13% use the internet in their jobs. Thereby, a broader response stimulating the economy and supporting those who cannot find a job is key.

Most read

Social insurance in Egypt: between costly formality and legal informality

The rates of participation of Egyptian workers in contributory social insurance has continued to decline, even during times when the country has had positive annual growth rates. This column discusses key institutional elements in the design of the current social insurance scheme that have contributed to the growing gap in coverage, particularly the scheme’s cost and eligibility requirements.

Making trade agreements more environmentally friendly in the MENA region

Trade policy can play a significant role in efforts to decarbonise the global economy. But as this column explains, there need to be more environmental provisions in trade agreements in which developing countries participate – and stronger legal enforcement of those provisions at the international level. The MENA region would benefit substantially from such changes.

Jordan: navigating through multiple crises

Jordan’s real GDP per capita is today no higher than it was 40 years ago. While external factors have undoubtedly had an adverse effect on the country’s economic outcomes, weak macroeconomic management and low public spending on investment and the social sectors have also played a substantial role. This column explores what can be done to reduce high public debt, accelerate private sector development and enhance social outcomes.

Iran’s globalisation and Saudi Arabia’s defence budget

How might Saudi Arabia react to Iran's renewed participation in global trade and investment? This column explores whether the expanding economic globalisation of Iran, following the lifting of nuclear sanctions, could yield a peace dividend for Saudi Arabia, consequently dampening the Middle East arms competition. These issues have attracted increased attention in recent times, notably after a pivotal agreement between the two countries in March 2023, marking the resumption of their political ties after a seven-year conflict.

Egypt and Iraq: amenities, environmental quality and taste for revolution

The Middle East and North Africa is a region marked by significant political turbulence. This column explores a novel dimension of these upheavals: the relationship between people’s satisfaction with, on one hand, the amenities to which they have access and the environmental quality they experience, and, on the other hand, their inclination towards revolutionary actions. The data come from the World Value Survey collected in 2018 in Egypt and Iraq.

Global value chains and domestic innovation: evidence from MENA firms

Global interlinkages play a significant role in enhancing innovation by firms in developing countries. In particular, as this column explains, participation in global value chains fosters a variety of innovation activities. Since some countries in the Middle East and North Africa display a downward trend on measures of global innovation, facilitating the GVC participation of firms in the region is a prospective channel for stimulating underperforming innovation.

Labour market effects of robots: evidence from Turkey

Evidence from developed countries on the impact of automation on labour markets suggests that there can be negative effects on manufacturing jobs, but also mechanisms for workers to move into the services sector. But this narrative may not apply in developing economies. This column reports new evidence from Turkey on the effects of robots on labour displacement and job reallocation.

Food insecurity in Tunisia during and after the Covid-19 pandemic

Labour market instability, rising unemployment rates and soaring food prices due to Covid-19 are among the reasons for severe food insecurity across the world. This grim picture is evident in Tunisia, where the government continues to provide financial and food aid to vulnerable households after the pandemic. But as this column explains, the inadequacy of some public policies is another important factors causing food insecurity.

Do capital inflows cause industrialisation or de-industrialisation?

There is a clear appeal for emerging and developing economies, including those in MENA, to finance investment in manufacturing industry at home with capital inflows from overseas. But as the evidence reported in this column indicates, this is a potentially risky strategy: rather than promoting industrialisation, capital flows can actually lead to lower manufacturing value added and/or a reallocation of resources towards industries with lower technology intensity.

Manufacturing firms in Egypt: trade participation and outcomes for workers

International trade can play a large and positive role in boosting economic growth, reducing poverty and making progress towards gender equality. These effects result in part from the extent to which trade is associated with favourable labour market outcomes. This column presents evidence of the effects of Egyptian manufacturing firms’ participation in exporting and importing on their workers’ productivity and average wages, and on women’s employment share.