Workers have mixed feelings about Ethiopian textile sector

The textile industry in Ethiopia is a beacon of hope: it has grown fast in recent years and created new jobs. Over 50,000 jobs were provided by the Bole Lemi textile complex in Addis Ababa and the Hawassa industrial park alone. But now growth is experiencing setbacks: first the coronavirus crisis led foreign investors to cancel orders, and then a civil war broke out in November 2020. Researchers examined how employees in the textile industry are faring.
Workers at a textile factory produce for Lidl in Addis Ababa. picture alliance / photothek / Ute Grabowsky Workers at a textile factory produce for Lidl in Addis Ababa.

In the past, low wages, cheap electricity and existing infrastructure drew in investors from many countries. But now the pandemic and the civil war have taken a serious toll on Ethiopia’s textile industry. Buyers have cancelled orders, factories have been forced to reduce personnel and some employees have not returned to work for fear of catching the coronavirus. As a result, production decreased considerably in the garments and apparel sector. According to the Ethiopian Investment Commission (EIC), the value of exports from public and private industrial parks declined by 45 % in the first nine months of Ethiopia’s 2020 tax year (June 2020 – July 2021).

Observers believe that the civil war could have an even more devastating impact on the textile industry. It might even lead to a collapse of the state, though the central government has regained much territory in recent month and fighting was limited to the Tigray region in early April. However, consequences for the entire Horn of Africa are hard to predict. In light of the tense situation, many textile parks worry that foreign investors will withdraw. Some (especially from Asia) have already pulled out, or have announced their intention to do so.

Many problems

The industrial park in Hawassa is one example. Though it lies in southern Ethiopia, which has so far not been a disputed area, people worry about the consequences of the destabilisation of the country caused by the Tigray conflict (see Markus Rudolfon

Another problem is the extremely high turnover and frequent absenteeism of the workers. A three-year (2020-22) research project, funded by Germany’s Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ), is assessing reasons. Researchers conducted interviews with textile workers about their situation.

Five women and four men were surveyed in Tula, a small village 20 kilometres away from Hawassa. The participants reflected the country’s religious diversity: Protestants, Orthodox Christians and a Muslim were included. According to the group of textile workers, former textile workers and rural observers of the industry, there are advantages and disadvantages to working in the industrial park. One woman said: “It’s good to have a job and a better life. It’s better to enjoy some independence than to sit at home and do nothing.”

Everyone agreed, however, that wages are extremely low. One respondent said that the good thing was that anyone in need of work could find a job there. However, the pay would probably not be high enough to cover daily expenses. The fact that this is typically not the case is probably one of the primary reasons for the high turnover in the industry.

Employees also experience poor living and working conditions. Workers have to put in night shifts and their lodgings are often a room that they share with four or more people.

The war has exacerbated the financial distress of textile workers because inflation has steadily risen. According to data from the Central Statistical Agency in September of 2021, the inflation rate in Addis Ababa was about 35 % and food inflation was as high as 42 %. It has become increasingly difficult to survive in the city.

Survival in the slum

The latter fact was confirmed by survey respondents in Tafo, an informal settlement on the outskirts of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s metropolis. One man whose wife works in the textile industry told the researchers that the wages are far too low and that the women suffer hardships. According to him, their rights are not respected. For example, they are immediately fired if they dare to oppose instructions given by supervisors. When women quit, he continued, they are often denied a certificate attesting to their knowledge and skills. This is how employers force them to stay on for two or three months until a replacement is found. “When you think about it, the job resembles slavery”, the man summed up. A textile worker from Tafo added that if someone gets sick at work, employers do not allow that person to go home, but instead “wait until the worker passes out”.

These statements reveal typical tensions between investors and employees in Ethiopian garments production. From the perspective of foreign companies, wages are attractively low. Some are pulling out of low-wage Bangladesh because labour is even cheaper in Ethiopia. However, managers complain about the high turnover and lack of work ethic among employees. One foreign manager stated that productivity is so low that he believes the future of the Ethiopian textile industry is in danger.

For workers, the situation looks completely different. They have to sit or stand on the factory floor six days a week for starvation wages. Many also have to take a long bus trip to get there. Those who live near their workplace and do not take the bus have to squeeze with other women into a small rented room that also eats up a significant portion of their meagre earnings. Therefore those who can, start looking for another job as quickly as possible.

Poverty is very pronounced in rural Ethiopia, but the situation varies from region to region. Land scarcity, soil erosion and climate change are making traditional agriculture increasingly difficult. Nonetheless, the livelihoods of many people still depend on subsistence farming. They have no safety net apart from their extended families. Textile workers return to farming when they do not want to work in the factories anymore.

In Germany, the Ethiopian textile industry is a controversial issue. Some see it as an important step in Ethiopia’s development: the industry creates jobs, promotes industrialisation and reduces extreme poverty. Others see wages below the minimum subsistence level and intolerable working conditions; in short, exploitation. Some say: this is progress. Others say: this is modern slavery.

The opinions of the surveyed Ethiopians reflect the German debate. Pro-industry advocates are pointing out the creation of jobs and women’s financial independence. Sceptics bemoan the women’s low wages and difficult working conditions.

Michaela Fink is a research associate on the aforementioned BMZ project, which is being conducted at the Justus Liebig University in Gießen.

Reimer Gronemeyer is Professor Emeritus at the Institute for Sociology at the Justus Liebig University in Gießen and director of the aforementioned Ethiopia project.

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