Friday, 04 Dec 2020

Extreme remote working at Gaza’s ‘weird news’ bureau

Aug 27, 2020

Extreme remote working
From her desk in a row of cubicles, Rawa Othman is scanning the shallows of the internet in search of what she calls “the weirdest news”.

“My main task is to search the web for the most interesting news: the tallest man in the world, the shortest woman, the oldest pregnant woman and so on,” she says. The contractor, who works between 8am and 4pm, translates the items into Arabic for the Abu Nawaf Network, a client in Saudi Arabia.

This is no ordinary workplace: Ms Othman translates weird news in a high-rise in the Gaza Strip, the Palestinian enclave ruled by the militant Islamist group Hamas. Gaza is sealed off from the world by an Israeli naval and aerial blockade, and its land borders with Egypt and Israel that only let a few travellers through.

Ms Othman’s office is run by Work Without Borders, one of two outfits in Gaza City that offer work for overseas clients, mostly, but not only, in the Arab world. Its clients pay the non-profit organisation, which is supported by Saudi donors, a rent of $200 per
month per desk, allowing them to tap the talent of young Palestinians for web design, programming, translation and call-centre work.

Offshoring, with its promises of a flat, connected world, is on the face of it a godsend for Gaza. The enclave has a captive market of young graduates with marketable skills and few other areas to deploy them. Good jobs of any kind are a prize in Gaza.

Gaza’s unemployment rate is above 40 per cent, and more than 60 per cent for young people. Most of its nearly 2m people live on some form of humanitarian aid. Humanitarian bodies such as the UN Relief and Works Agency, the Palestinian refugee agency, are the main employers.

Work Without Borders’ contractors earn in the range of about $700 to $2,000 a month — a decent living wage in line with private sector salaries. About 70 people work there, including both programmers and administrative staff. Women are prevalent in the outsourced workforce in an Islamist-ruled territory where they are veiled and often out of sight.

“It’s hard for us to travel outside Gaza, hard to get a working visa in the Gulf,” says Alaa Saqer, who is helping to develop applications for ecommerce and real estate for another client, EXA Serve, a multinational web hosting and cloud computing company that has an office in Riyadh. “So working online and having an environment like Work Without Borders solves this challenge.”

A second, privately owned offshoring company called Unit One, founded in 2005, has about 100 staff. Its clients are in the Netherlands, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and other countries. The company charges its clients $25 to $35 per employee per hour, and recently touted its services at CeBit, the global technology trade fair in Hannover.

“We are working to export services, because these services don’t need access to borders — only the internet and communications,” says Saady Lozon, the group’s executive director. “Gaza needs trade, not aid.”

Gaza’s tiny offshoring sector must compete with better-known and longer established business process outsourcing hubs, from India to Arab countries nearer home. Egypt and Jordan already have legions of programmers, app designers, and translators serving the large market for “Arabisation” of English-language web content.

On top of that, businesses in Gaza face punishing operating conditions, including intermittent power supply. Work Without Borders relies on no fewer than three sources of power: the normal supply from the grid; a generator in its building, and a third one of its own as back-up.

The company has ordered solar panels too, but the shipment is delayed at the Israeli border, where officials scrutinise all shipments closely for fears goods will be put to military use.

During Operation Protective Edge, Israel’s military offensive against Hamas last summer, which killed more than 2,100 Palestinians, many of Unit One’s employees were unable to come to work, returning only during intermittent humanitarian pauses during the 50 days of fighting.

Israel sealed off Gaza’s land, sea and air borders after Hamas took over in 2007, and now only admits a trickle of special cases: senior businesspeople, medical patients, religious pilgrims, and family reunifications.

The territory’s isolation deepened in 2013, when Egypt’s military regime, which loathes the Islamist group, took power and clamped shut the border at Rafah, formerly the gateway for Gazans to Cairo’s airport and the rest of the world.

“Gaza is well known for its spirit of entrepreneurship, but has few markets for its goods, and its horizons [are] very limited,” says Eitan Diamond, executive director of Gisha, an Israeli NGO that monitors freedom of movement.

Since the war a year ago, Israeli officials have taken some steps to ease the controls on the movement of people and goods out of Gaza, including by allowing companies based there to export to the West Bank, which for years it restricted for security reasons.

However, according to Gisha, Israel’s recent moves to relax travel restrictions have been “largely symbolic”, and travel over the Israeli border is about 3 per cent of the level recorded in September 2000.

The hardships of doing business in Gaza are in addition to the usual drawbacks of distance work anywhere, including the paucity of face-to-face contact. Gaza’s distance workers communicate with their clients in the Gulf over the phone, email or Skype, but — as Mr Saqer says: “It’s not like you are sitting next to each other.” However, he is quick to add: “It doesn’t work the same, but it works.”

Iman al-Bebeisi, who heads Work Without Borders’ translation team agrees. “It’s challenging because you don’t see your boss,” she says. “You have to know what to do and when to do it, and when you’re going to hand it in.”

However, something bigger is at stake than the work of the day, says Ms Bebeisi, who fell into remote working after she returned from a scholarship in the US, followed by stints of work at foreign and local non-governmental organisations.

“It’s important because we are not only representing ourselves, but part of a Gaza community,” she says. “If we did something wrong, they might generalise it and say ‘no’. We are trying to sell a product and brand our work.”

On a recent morning, her team were at work translating and developing a series of training videos and infographics about entrepreneurship for a Saudi client.

Ahad Sha’er, 23, showed one of the animated videos — a voiced over, polished training film about founding a business — to a visitor.

“We did all the animation in Gaza,” he said with a clear note of pride.