The morning of August 4, 2016 was an unfortunate one for 11 employees of Defense Construction Enterprise (DCE) at a work site located along Africa Avenue. They were carrying out their jobs as usual. However, they found themselves in the middle of a tragic accident, when the wooden elevator they were using collapsed. The accident took the life of one of the workers and left two of them in critical condition. Four months later, almost all of them had left the construction project, trying to escape the memory of the tragic day.
At the moment, the project employs close to 300 workers. During a visit made by Fortune to the site on December 28, 2016, the majority of the workers were not wearing safety equipment outside of plastic hardhats. The most common footwear was plastic shoes and simple sandals. The site is one of 30 projects contracted by the enterprise.
“Following the accident, we have taken steps to concretely change some things,” said Yiergu Adera, the site’s project manager. “For example, the wooden elevators are now made from metal.”
Such and similar occupational injuries, especially in construction sites, have become frequent headline news in recent weeks. Just last week similar accidents occurred in Bishotfu.
Recent reports disclose that 49 deaths were reported.
A small survey conducted in 2016 by Sebsibe Tadesse and Dagnachew Israel found out that the prevalence of injury among building construction employees was reported at 38.8pc in the past year.
The majority of the reported injuries occurred while not using Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). The common types of injuries were cuts (66.3pc) and falls (28.5pc). Nearly half of the incidents were leg injuries, followed by injuries to hands and fingers.
Over the past 15 months 49 deaths were reported from accidents due to construction projects.
The major reason behind the injuries was a lack of safety awareness, according to the study.
At country level, there isn’t a comprehensive safety policy yet, while existing policies aren’t bringing about many positive impacts. However, a draft policy intended to fill the gap was presented last week by the Confederation of Ethiopian Trade Unions, which states in its preamble that given the low employment options, and some employers’ single minded focus on profits irrespective of labour safety, labourers are prone to a number of safety and health risks.
The draft document indicates that reporting mechanisms in cases of accidents are poor. Moreover, even if there are lists of workplace health and safety concerns, there is no means of controlling and inspecting vulnerabilities.
For instance, in the case of the elevator accident at the DCE, the trade union representing the workers would be expected to look after the rights of the workers.
“It is difficult for us to know what is happening in all 30 projects across the country,” Asichalew Abate, head of the DCE trade union told Fortune.
Before the incident, there were no occupational safety standards or directives in place.
“It was only after what happened that we started to prepare safety documents,” said Asichalew.
Moreover, a committee has already been established at DCE that will oversee safety issues.
The Confederation of Ethiopian Trade Unions is a mandated advocate for labour rights. They are allowed to compel organizations to allow their workers to form trade unions. However the process sometimes brings a backlash from employers.
“There is this old leftist mentality of seeing the trade unions as a distractive element,” said Muluneh Dessalegne, head of the Industrial Relations & Organization department at the Confederation. His office has close to 1,300 unions under it.
Labour unions in Ethiopia have a history that dates back to when the Franco-Ethiopian Railway Workers Union was established. Then, after almost two decades, the first national umbrella organization for labour movements was formed under the name of the Confederation of Ethiopian Labour Unions (CELU).
During the Marxist military administration of the Dergue, the union’s name was changed to the All Ethiopian Trade Union (AETU). In 1993, the still existing CETU was formed under tense political confrontation with the establishment, leading to the eventual exile of its founding president, Dawi Ibrahim.
“It is really difficult to convince the employers,” said Muluneh.
“Sometimes we witness grave abuses of the country's labour law. Some foreign investors nowadays have gone to the extent of employing citizens of their own countries as a security guards and janitors,” Muluneh said.
Last year, out of 400 new unions CETU planned to set up, it only formed half. Two years ago they achieved a better result with 264 new unions formed. “Unions are the only channel we have to know what is happening behind the scenes in each factory and organization,” said Muluneh. “For instance, if there is some abuse of the workers’ right.”
Just last year, the Confederation launched a mass unionization campaign to organize close to 24,000 unorganized workers under a union.
The confederation is required to provide legal protections for workers who are in need of them. Over the past two years, cases brought over employee-employers relations has increased. In 2014, the number of cases that appeared in court were just 15; a year later, this figure escalated to 39.
Over the past two years, cases involving trade union leaders, such as in the cases of Shoa Bakery, Diageo Brewery, and Sheraton Addis Hotel were brought before CETU.
Those cases involved the alleged unlawful termination of employee contracts and the termination of trade union leaders’ employment..
Last year, aside from cases that were brought to court, there were also cases that were addressed administratively. Out of those, cases involving textile factories made up the lion’s share.
A conflict regarding the salary increment of Ayka Textile factory was one which was solved administratively by the CETU.
Nowadays, a number of cases are coming from many textile companies, due to their nature of employing large numbers of people. This is especially true for textile companies that used to be owned by the government and were then privatized. Textile companies namely, Hawassa, Arba Minch, Dire Dawa are gradually deteroriating in terms of capacity and modernity. This in return is affecting the benefits that the workers are supposed to get. However, the companies seem to be on the verge of drowning , despite incentives provided by the government.
“Sometimes we witness grave abuses of the country’s labour law. Some foreign investors nowadays have gone to the extent of employing citizens of their own countries as a security guards and janitors,” Muluneh said.
A problem that is repeatedly brought up by workers and unions is the termination of contracts without following the labour law.
A notable case involved the water company Yes Bottling Company. The company allegedly terminated the contracts of sales officers and loading staff with only vague justifications, according to legal expert from the Confederation.
The company’s reason for laying off the sales staff was that is had been ordered to stop its retail business; it didn’t need any sales staff anymore. However the loaders should not have been terminated as their work had nothing to do with retail, according to the expert. Another visible case this year involved Diageo, a UK based company that owns Meta Abo Brewery. The company decided to layoff close to 200 of its employees. The case went to the Federation for Beverage, Tobacco & Allied Trade Unions.
The Federation, which works under the umbrella of the Confederation, failed to save the employees’ jobs.
This was not the first time that Diageo terminated a large number of positions.
The latest incident was the fourth time the company presented plans for mass layoffs in the past five years. Layoffs began in 2014. From August to September 2014, Diageo sacked 314 employees, in two rounds of layoffs. Those who lost their jobs received a minimum of 19 months’ salary as compensation.
“We were manipulated by the fact that the company promised us we could work as their distributors after we were laid off,” said, a former employe of the company. The company promised that if they deposited some money and applied for business licenses, they could become distributors of Diageo products, he claimed.
“We consider these accusations to be heavily slanderous to our organization and investment in Ethiopia,” reads the email response by Diageo.
“That was why I accepted the termination in the first place,” said the employee. “We were tricked by the company once they secured what they needed.”
So far the Confederation has no clear data or database on how many of the public, private entities have not formed trade unions. Recently, the Confederation received assistance from an organization called American Solidarity to carry out a study on the issues and how to resolve the shortcomings.
Abdulffetah Abdulahi, minister of Labour & Social Affairs stated to the parliament that the relationship between employees and employers needed hard work to improve.
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