Labourers working inside the factories of the nation’s first industrial park, Bole Lemi, were on strike for five days starting on May 11, 2018. They are demanding higher pay and a favourable working environment.
The strike at the Bole Lemi Industrial Park occurred at only one factory on Friday and climaxed to four by last Monday. The factories were Shints Garment Solution from South Korea, Arvin Garment and Ashetn Apparel, the two Indian companies and the Taiwanese George Shoe.
Only the first has an association for employees, which is also where the strike began – a company that pays between 900 Br and 1,600 Br to employees.
By Wednesday, the environment at the Park had worsened and was tense, with the compound occupied by federal police forces. The management of the park and the factories, officials of the Industrial Parks Development Corporation (IPDC) and the Ethiopian Investment Commission (EIC), were engaged in meetings.
During the discussions, the management of the factories agreed with salary increments but only if an increase in productivity by the workers was evident. They also showed their willingness to loosen the working environment as long as the employees develop their workplace culture.
The management accused the workers of poor time management. The employees complained they are mistreated and abused, according to a female labourer who says the maximum wage at the leather factory she works at is 1,500, while the minimum is almost half that.
The workers raised a total of 56 questions that included a salary raise, subjective bonus, operational safety and health (OSH), overtime pay, subjective disciplinary measures, few sick and annual leaves, and the bad utilisation of transport.
The Park that became operational in 2014 has 20 sheds and accommodates 14,200 workers out of which 13,000 are female. Most of the factories produce apparel while nine factories are engaged in the production of shoes and gloves.
Officials at the Corporation say they are working to address the disagreement and that there are good signs.
“The management of the companies have shown goodwill to cover food, transport and shelter expenses, with shints garment having requested land to construct dormitories around the park,” says Shiferaw Solomon, deputy CEO of operations at the Corporation.
As foreign direct investment (FDI) has been growing in the country – with 2.2 billion dollars worth of FDI attracted in the first half of this fiscal year – lack of labour unions, low wages and alleged mistreatment of employees have been pointed out for criticism by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and the Confederation of Trade Unions (CETU).
“The main problem is the absence of workers associations,” says Muluneh Dessalegn, Industrial Associations & Communications head at the Confederation. “If they are not allowed to be organised in associations, the problems will persist.”
Muluneh says that minimum wages are under discussion at the Confederation, and agrees that even though they can enhance the negotiating power of employees, they can also lead to unemployment.
“The government has the right to intervene unless it is afraid of hampering the FDI flow,” said Mehari Redai (PhD), who has more than two decades of experience at Addis Abeba Unversity’s law school. “The right to organise is a right given by the law of the country, and the investors also know this, but are not willing to realise it.”
He notes the negative impact of minimum wage without setting enforcement mechanisms and alternative job opportunities.
The Corporation has successfully constructed industrial parks at Bole Lemi, Addis Industrial Village, Qilinto and Hawasa, which are operational and parks in Meqelle, Kombolcha, and Adama are under construction. While Dire Dewa Industrial Park is in the pipeline to come online soon.
Industrial parks have thus far generated a revenue of over 100 million dollars.
At the time being, an agreement for the workers to continue to raise their questions but to continue working has been reached, according to Angesom Gebre Yohannes, head of Education, Training & International Relations at the Federation of Textile, Leather & Apparel Industry Association.
“The Federation is in the process of forming associations for employees,” he said.
Fortune‘s attempt to reach the director of the Bole Lemi Industrial Park by phone and text message bore no fruit.