On 7 March, thousands of textile and garment workers went on strike at Ethiopia’s biggest industrial park, Hawassa, demanding better wages, safe working conditions and an end to sexual harassment. The workers were not represented by a trade union, because for the past two years, management at the industrial park has refused to allow unions to organize, IndustriALL reports.
Ethiopia’s economy has grown quickly over the last few years, from an agricultural economy to an industrializing one. The country now has one of the highest economic growth rates in Sub-Saharan Africa. Industrial parks like Hawassa are part of the government’s plan to create jobs.
The Ethiopian Investment Commission touts low wages and other benefits to attract investment. The government has set up the Ethiopian Textile Industry Development Institute, and industrial parks have been built across the country to promote light manufacturing. The largest is Hawassa, with the potential to employ over 60,000 workers on double shifts. It is expected to generate US$1 billion in exports.
Global garment brands and retailers have identified Ethiopia and Kenya as countries to source goods from over the next five years, mainly due to rising costs in countries they have traditionally produced in, like China and Vietnam. Factories in the industrial parks supply to big brands and retailers, including Adidas, Marks & Spencer, H&M, Primark, JC Penny, Phillips-Van Heusen, Tesco, Inditex, Tchibo, Kik, VF Corporation, Schöffel, Walmart, Ober Mayer, George (Asda), Levi Strauss and Hugo Boss.
Ethiopian workers are on the losing end of the equation. Denying unions access means that wages are low, and workers’ rights, including to health and safety and collective bargaining, are curtailed. 92.5 per cent of the workers earn less than the minimum required to make a living, with 8 per cent earning below US$35. The face of the textile and garment sector in Ethiopia is that of a young woman. But at Hawassa, the union is unable to campaign for women workers’ rights, including against sexual harassment, for maternity protection and on child care issues. Housing is another issue as many women are forced to share a room, sometimes with more than four colleagues.
The government promotes ‘industrial harmony’ - but unions say harmony can only be attained through inclusive social dialogue. Unions in the country represent only a small portion of the workforce. Only 10 per cent of the country’s labour force of over 44 million workers is employed in the private sector and the law does not allow public sector workers to organize. In addition to low unionization, there is poor representation of women workers within the unions.
Minimum and living wages are central to a campaign by the 55,000-strong Industrial Federation of Textile, Leather and Garment Workers Union (IFTLGWU), affiliated to CETU. With the current wages most workers struggle to make ends meet and can be described as working poor. A low wage economy means jobs that will neither change living standards of the workers, nor end poverty.
To achieve their goal, the IFTLGWU is working with the International Labour Organization, FNV Mondiaal, the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, IndustriALL and other partners in various activities that include building union capacity for collective bargaining towards social dialogue. IFTLGWU is using collective bargaining training as part their campaign for a living wage. Training shop stewards in the textile and garment sector means they can take the fight for workers’ rights to their factories.