Controversial Labour Bill Stirs Up Public Discontent

A recent overhaul in the nation's labour proclamation faces disapproval from the labour unions and workforce. While the amendment aims to provide a framework to equally benefit both the employers and employees, the Union, representing over half a million labourers across the country, claims it undermines their rights. Putting forward a slew of points it disagrees with in the new reform, the Union plans to demonstrate against the changes peacefully and will resort to a nationwide strike if their trepidations are not heeded to, reports SAMSON BERHANE, FORTUNE STAFF WRITER

Life has never been easy for the 24-year-old Demis Jada after losing his left hand eight months ago, in an accident while working on machines at Friendship Tannery- a Chinese owned company.

Operational since 2011, the company is located in Modjo, 74 Km from Addis Abeba.

“It is a pity,” said Demis, who worked as a Mechanic at the factory for two years. “No one pays attention to safety. They only focus on the work and its execution.”

Claiming the machines he was operating are half a century old, Demis was compensated with 20,000 Br after the accident at the plant.

Nevertheless, the payment is far from being adequate for the victim who recently got married.

Not only Demis, but this has been the case for many labourers working at Friendship as well as at other construction sites and factories.

“Nowadays, it is common to experience such cases,” Kassahun Follo, president of Confederation of Ethiopian Trade Unions (CETU).

The existing labour law does not clarify the compensation given to an employee during workplace injury, instigating controversies between the employers and labourers.

“Many have ended up in court due to such issues,” Kassahun said.

Realising this, the Ministry of Labour & Social Affairs (MoLSA), currently headed by Abdulfatah Abdullah,  amended the labour proclamation as a response to such disputes and other points found to be problematic for both the employees and employers alike.

The draft placed a fine ranging from 3,500 Br to 40,000 Br depending on the severity of the offences, like neglecting the safety of the labourers by the employers.

Nevertheless, this is not still enough for the union that represents half a million labourers throughout the country.

“For industries worth millions, paying 40,000 Br every time an accident occurs is no a burden,” he said.

Employers who commit an offence more than three times must be sentenced to five years imprisonment, and the manager should face a three-year suspension, the Union suggests.

However, this is not acceptable for Tadele Yimer, president of Ethiopian Employers Federation (EEF).

“There is no reason for the government to put criminal penalties in the law,” he said. “If employers commit a criminal offence, they can be penalised under the criminal code.”

The debate over points stated under the labour laws had always been vigorous in Ethiopia.

The history of labour law in Ethiopia dates back to the early 1960s during the promulgation of the first proclamation aiming to enhance the standard of living for locals through harmonious cooperation of labourers, enterprises and favourable working conditions.

It was repealed after the Dergue Regime- which introduced a new law by explicitly stating its purpose of freeing the worker from exploitation, expanding employment opportunities and organising workers in trade unions shoulder to shoulder with the socialist principle.

Again, the transitional government drafted a new law that rescinded the labour proclamation of the military state in 1993, having an objective of sorting out the labour market in line with the market-oriented economic structure.

A decade later, it was amended by the current government, giving rise to the existing labour proclamation. Its aim was ensuring the rights of workers to form an organisation free from the interference of authorities.

Tackling unemployment, easing preconditions for temporary employment and shortening probation of contract by half to 45 days as well as widening cases, where dismissals from jobs are lawful, were the significant reforms made in the proclamation at that moment.

Once more, three articles of the law on the aspects of disability, minimum wage and child labour were altered in 2008 when found to be opposing the international labour rights conventions.

All these reforms were not gratifying for the government, which managed to reduce the unemployment rate by four percent over the past decade to 16pc last year.

Targeting for a further reduction in the unemployment rate, MoLSA is attempting to amend the proclamation once again.

There has been a significant economic growth since the enactment of the last proclamation,” Fekadu Gebru, a director of Harmonious Industrial Relations at the Ministry, told Fortune.

The bill has been in the making by MoLSA, CETU and the Employers’ Federation since 2015.

“The amendment originated from the comments and recommendations of both the workers and employers,” Fekadu remarked.

The new bill has revised 53 articles in the existing proclamation mainly in the aspects of union formation, probation period, and downsizing the workforce, contract termination, compensation, annual leave and working overtime.

Like its predecessors, the draft, nonetheless, has not been without controversies.

Last year, after it was sent to the Council of Ministers (CoM), it was rejected for not considering the experiences of other countries. Then, the ministry revised the draft incorporating the experiences of Vietnam, South Korea, Singapore and Indonesia, identifying that they have a similar labour market and economic priority with Ethiopia.

This, however, was not well received by the Union.

“Comparing Ethiopia with the selected countries is very difficult as they are far more developed than Ethiopia,” Kassahun said.

The prohibition of unjustified tardiness for over a day is amongst the points that grabbed the attention of many in the labour market.

Just a week ago, the Union reacted over the amendments of the proclamation by listing out 18 points of disagreement.

This is not the concern of only the Union’s representatives, but also many others who line up in long queues to come to the office, according to him.

“Not only people working in private organisations, but also government officials usually make it to work very late due to the existing transportation problem. So, it denies the truth if this law is approved,” he said. “This means employees who are late because they are looking after  their family for two consecutive days, will be fired.”

But, for Tadele, this is not an issue to deal with at all.

“A habit of being tardy should be highly discouraged,” he said, citing the case of many factories whose production is affected and they lose millions due to the lateness of their employees.

“We have seen many cases where workers deliberately or unreasonably become late or absent just because the law forces employers to be patient for five days,” he added.

Furthermore, the doubling of probation period to 90 days is also amongst points stated by the Union as an area that needs to be redrafted. However, the law comes as a relief for the employers.

“Embracing this law into the new bill will be helpful for both employers and employees,” said Tadele, the representative of 30,000 employers in the country. “It will help the employer to get more time in rating the performance of their labourers.”

For a labour law expert, flexing the probation period can be a solution to settle the disagreements between the duo.

“The probation period should be set based on the nature of the job,” said Mulugeta Belay, a legal expert specialising in labour law.

Nevertheless, this is not a point of contention for the Ministry’s official.

“As long as the two parties agree, the probation period can be adjusted,” Fikadu said.

The new bill also slashed the annual leave given to workers. Unlike the previous law where yearly leave increases by one day for every year of service, an employee working for a company for less than five years will get 14 days of annual leave, whereas those with six and 10 years of services get 16 days annual leave, according to the draft.

And, workers serving a company for over a decade must get 19 days of leave every year, the bill reads.

Contrary to the existing law, employees who cannot be easily replaced by their employers, are also required to give three months of notice before leaving the company.

“There are companies that lose millions of Birr due to the lack of skilled manpower to replace those who leave the company,” said Tadele. “Hence, giving a reasonable period to employers to replace such workers is important for the country and workforce.”

These entire reforms do not seem to be pleasing for the representative of the paid labour force, which has now reached over five million.

Last Thursday, CETU, in its general assembly attended by no less than 100 labour leaders, threatened of a possible national labour strike if the government pursues the labour bill without heading its concerns.

In its statement, the Confederation declared that it would forward its concerns and complaints to the office of the Prime Minister, MoLSA and nine regional state administrations.

“We will first peacefully demonstrate on streets. Then, if our request is not responded to quickly, we will go on strike,” the Confederation declared in its statement.

Tadele responds.

“This is not the right decision,” he said. “It is just a draft. It can be amended, modified and altered.”





Published on Oct 29,2017 [ Vol 18 ,No 914]



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