The curbing of the collective voices of workers in Ethiopia’s state-led industrialisation: The case of the garment sector

Mohammed Seid Ali is an assistant professor in the Department of political science and international studies, Bahir Dar University, Ethiopia. He is also a presidential scholar at the African Studies Centre, University of Michigan. Moreover, he is the winner of the 2020 and 2021 award of the African Research Development Group (APCG), which is organised by the American Political Science Association (APSA). In addition, he is serving on a nominating committee of the APCG-African Affairs Best Graduate Student Paper Award organised by the American Political Science Association. His main research interests are topics such as African political economy, human rights, and development, governance, and peace and security issues.


A state-led industrialisation drive inspired by the East Asian ‘developmental state’ ideology is at the core of Ethiopia’s industrial policymaking. Yet, scholarship on the implications of Ethiopia’s state-led industrialisation on the collective voices of local industrial workers is rare. Hence, this article argues that Ethiopia’s state-led industrialisation has firmly stood for strong business-state alliances, thereby curbing the collective voices of local industrial workers. Using qualitative empirical data, the article attempts to address the research gap and contribute to the existing debate by examining why and how the country’s state-led industrialisation has been operating in this context since 2005. Analysis of the findings indicates that facilitating industrial catch-up is at the centre of the country’s industrial development policymaking. Also that, the voice of the workers has been considered as a threat to foreign direct investment (FDI). As a result of the policy, the Ethiopian government employs diverse de facto or de jure labour control mechanisms, exceptionally against the associational rights of workers in the garment exporting industries across the country’s industrial parks (IPs). Moreover, employing industries have enforced various forms of administrative and punitive measures to subdue the collective voices of their workers. Hence, Ethiopia’s activist industrial policy must navigate a reasonable balance between facilitating industrial catch-up and ensuring labour standards for inclusive, peaceful, and sustainable industrial labour relations.

1. Introduction

Despite the plethora of development and human or labour rights studies on the subject, there is no scholarly unanimity on the meaning of the term ‘collective labour rights’ (Mehari 2015:40–41). Similarly, there are no consensual explanations among scholars of these fields of study of the implications of state-led industrialisation on the collective labour rights of industrial workers (Anner 2015:152). As a result, labour rights scholars have shifted their intellectual engagement from finding shared conceptions and explanations of collective labour rights and state-led industrialisation to describing the historical track records of countries concerning these two topical development agendas.

Concerning the implication of state-led industrialisation on the collective labour rights of industrial workers, the experiences of those East Asian countries which followed the ‘developmental state’ model are plausible demonstrations. The model has historically proved potent for achieving rapid industrialisation in East Asian economies. This has been made clear by Herms’ (1997:1) unequivocal statement: ‘Without a doubt, East Asia’s economic expansion during the past twenty years is one of the most remarkable economic changes since the Second World War’. At the heart of their economic success, was state intervention-which has even been recognised by the World Bank’s 1993 report on the region (Hardy and Hauge 2019:1). Accordingly, the active industrial policy of governments of the region preferentially subsidised export-oriented and labour-intensive industries as priority sectors. But, the relationship between the state and the firms was characterised by reciprocity, where the state offered firms a subsidy and the firms were expected to do well in the export market (Wade 2003:621–664)

Yet, the strong business-state alliance at the heart of the state-led industrialisation of East Asian countries was partly aimed at curbing the power of labour. Their approach, which was used to suppress the power and well-being of their local labour force, has been part of their policy priority for facilitating industrial catch-up, particularly in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. It has to be noted that the garment sector had been highly competitive, with the result that global garment manufacturers would hunt for low production destinations with flexible labour regulations (Oya and Schaefer 2019:386). In response to this global demand, countries of the East Asian region negotiated with the incoming firms, particularly in the garment sector, by promising less protective labour practices.

Low wages and a highly disciplined workforce have usually been presented by East Asian countries as investment incentives to these multinational firms. Hence, to maintain the influx of FDI, national governments of the region have employed de jure or de facto labour control mechanisms to suppress the bargaining power of labour against global capital. In this connection, countries such as Korea and Singapore curtailed their organised labour by repressing or co-opting labour rights institutions. Similarly, in Hong Kong and Taiwan, the governments enforced the policy of intermingling kinship ties and business networks to limit the emergence of working-class militancy (Hardy and Hauge 2019:10). Hence, East Asian countries’ suppressive labour practices against the collective labour rights of their workers may be viewed as an example of the external influence of economic globalisation. 

In the same vein, as part of the hyper-competitive trend of economic globalisation, the just-in-time production systems in the global garment production networks necessitate the fluid functioning of the supply chain. As a result, the sector requires effective labour control regimes to prevent the production networks from any forms of work stoppage or disruptions such as workers’ demonstrations and labour strikes (Staritz and Whitfield 2019). In response to this, countries with state-led industrialisation ideology have employed various formal and informal techniques to suppress the collective voices of workers (Hardy and Hauge:1–4). For example, the Chinese government has practised an authoritarian state labour control regime by employing both legal and extra-legal instruments to curtail and discipline workers’ collective actions including labour strikes (Hardy and Hauge 2919). Similarly, in Bangladesh, the government and employers in the garment industries employed the actual labour market conditions and unemployment to discipline the country’s labour force (Oya and Schaefer 2019:388). Likewise, industrial parks in Honduras consistently applied a repressive labour control model whereby employers had direct means of economic and extra-economic coercion over workers (Anner 2015:163). 

Furthermore, multinational garment manufacturers and brands have been motivated to relocate their production sites to new destinations where the local labour force was not only cheap but less organised, which has helped avoid any form of disruption to the smooth industrial production process. As such, countries of state-led industrialisation in Asia have appropriated their industrial parks as special export processing cites where exceptionally suppressive labour controls have been enforced both by the governments and the employing firms (Oya and Schaefer 2019:388). Thus, industrial parks of these late-industrialising countries have been industrial workplaces where preferential treatment of global capital over local labour has been enforced. 

In contemporary Africa, there have been growing ideological and actual industrial policy commitments towards the East Asian model of state-led industrialisation or the ‘developmental state’. As parts of their investment incentives to attract those labour-intensive multinational garment firms to their IPs, many late-industrialising Sub-Saharan African countries follow a cheap and less-protective labour policy (Staritz and Whitfield 2019). For example, Mauritius has promoted management-initiated and ‘artificial’ workers’ councils in various IPs of the country to avoid the formation of and pressures from independent and strong labour unions (Oya and Schaefer 2019:387). Besides, countries such as Mauritius, Lesotho, and Madagascar have followed various de jure and de facto labour control mechanisms to suppress the associational rights of local industrial workers at those multinational garment exporting firms (Oya and Schaefer 2019:395–399). Despite its repressive reactions to the voices of local industrial workers, this quest for increasing FDI is compelling a policy imperative for countries of Sub-Saharan Africa where unemployment and underemployment have become critical socio-economic and political challenges.  

 In Ethiopia, the successful track record of the country’s rapid industrialisation seems to resonate with its post-2005 ideological and development policy drives towards the developmental state or state-led industrialisation. With a low-income economy of an Eastern African state, Ethiopia has been remarkable in successfully initiating industrial catch-up to ensure structural socio-economic transformation from a predominantly agrarian economy to a globally integrated industrial economy (Fantu 2014:39–45). In this regard, the country’s ideological commitment towards state-led industrialisation to actively craft investment-friendly industrial policymaking has been remarkable (Arkebe 2019:605). Also, the country has invested heavily in industrial infrastructure, human resource developments, and offered tax incentives to attract FDI in the garment and apparel industries as priority sectors. 

As a result of the preceding ideological and practical commitments of Ethiopia’s state-led industrialisation, the country has recently become among those preferred destinations for multinational apparel manufacturers and brands (Barrett and Baumann-Pauly 2019:7). In 2017, it was ranked as the first recipient of those labour-intensive foreign apparel firms in East Africa and the second in Africa in 2017 (NCTAD 2018:26). Yet, the largely overlooked development in the history of industrialisation is the country’s labour rights context. In this regard, leading researchers such as Oya and Schafer (2019:398-399), Hardy and Hauge (2019:1–25) and Mitta (2019) highlighted the challenges of the labour sector in late-industrialising Ethiopia. 

Ethiopia’s state-led industrialisation has been based on the overarching ideological premise that the existence of a highly organised labour institution could disrupt the smooth industrial production process and thereby affect the influx of FDI (Oya and Schaefer 2019:381–398). Accordingly, the Ethiopian government has followed various forms of repressive mechanisms to weaken the Confederation of Ethiopian Trade Unions (CETU). It has formally prohibited CETU from initiating workers to organise themselves at their respective workplaces. As a result, workers were prevented from being initiated as members of the CETU, and thus take a step towards organising. It has weakened CETU’s leadership using administrative and financial manipulations. As a result, the role and power of CETU as an independent representative national labour institution has been significantly limited. What is more, the CETU has even been supportive of the government policies by downsizing workers’ legitimate demands for freedom of association. In a similar vein, Ethiopia’s state-led industrialisation has deliberately weakened the Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs (MoLSA), which is in charge of enforcing labour standards (Hardy and Hauge 2019:13–14). As a result, MoLSA and affiliated labour rights institutions have been silent about what goes on inside the factory gates and reluctant to take protective measures to ensure that investors comply with Ethiopia’s labour laws and regulations.

Moreover, the government has usually securitised and militarised the workplaces, particularly across the country’s IPs, to put pressure on workers who propagated associational rights. Furthermore, it has frequently blocked all the potential institutional avenues through which labour rights institutions could operate, particularly at the country’s IPs (Yirgalem 2019:19). Likewise, multinational apparel manufacturers operating across the country’s IPs have employed various mechanisms to suppress the voices of workers. For example, they usually put time pressures on their workers to prevent them from discussing their associational rights.[1] Moreover, they have frequently employed punitive disciplinary measures against workers who initiated unionisations and labour strikes. Additionally, they initiated the establishment of employer-affiliated trade unions to avoid any external drive for the realisation of independent and strong labour unions organised by the free and active participation of workers (Oya and Schaefer 2019:397). Furthermore, weak labour auditing practices of global apparel brand buyers sourcing from Ethiopia’s IPs have contributed to the violation of workers’ rights.

The above literature review shows the implication of state-led industrialisation on the collective labour rights of industrial workers. Nevertheless, the topic still experiences significant research gaps preventing the comprehensive understanding of the major challenges encountered by collective labour voices from the vantage points of states’ development ideology, labour rights institutions, employers, and multinational apparel brands. Moreover, little has been researched concerning the exceptional context of Ethiopia’s state-led industrialisation and its implications for the voices of local industrial workers in the country’s Industrial Parks. 

Towards filling this underlying research gap, this article, therefore, aims to examine the suppressive labour practices applied against the collective labour rights (freedom of association, the right to collective bargaining, and the right to conduct labour strikes) of workers during Ethiopia’s state-led industrialisation since 2005. It also describes and expounds on various labour-control mechanisms employed by both the Ethiopian government and multinational garment industries in the country’s IPs to silence the voices of local industrial workers. For this article, the term state-led industrialisation is used to refer to the existence of a strong state which actively and deliberately leads the country’s ambition to structural economic transformation through industrialisation. As such, the ideology rests on the underlying purpose that states should focus on attracting FDI, particularly in the labour-intensive garments sector, to create a sizable number of industrial jobs and to easily join the sector’s global market. Finally, the ideology propagates a highly disciplined and controlled workforce to attract multinational garment exporters and brands.

2. Methodology

The study employed an exploratory research design with a qualitative approach. The study sites were: Eastern Industrial Zone (EIZ) IP in Durum, Bole Lemi I IP in Addis Ababa, and Hawassa IP in Hawassa. These industrial sites are from the first generation of industrial sites. They generated thousands of employment opportunities by hosting several foreign garment firms. Only garment firms were selected because they are a priority sector of the Ethiopian government. This labour-intensive sector is one in which serious violations of associational rights have often been committed across the world (Bangladesh, Vietnam, Mexico, Madagascar, Namibia, Kenya) (Oya and Schaefer 2019:389). Similarly, in Ethiopia, some reports demonstrate repeated labour rights violations, particularly in the garment sector (ILO 2017; Kidist 2019:29–52). For this study, three major foreign garment exporters from America, China and India, operating at Hawassa IP, EIZ IP and Bole Lemi 1 IP, respectively, were chosen to be sources of data. 

The qualitative research method was appropriated to generate data that are both flexible and sensitive to the ideological context concerned. International, regional, national and industry level human or labour right norms, investment policies, and strategic national industrial development plans, International Labour Organisation (ILO) reports, and media contents which were relevant data resources were also examined. A main focus has been on industrial, labour, human rights and investment affiliated institutions. Relevant data have also been gathered from various stakeholders, such as the ILO regional office, the Investment Commission (IC), the Industrial Park Development Cooperation (IPDC), the Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs (MoLSA), the Bureaus of Labour and Social Affairs (BoLSA), the Confederation of Ethiopian Trade Unions (CETU), representatives of global brands (buyers) of selected firms, and firm managers of the selected firms. 

Various semi-structured interviews were conducted with industrial workers to properly explore their lived experiences, thoughts, expressions, and interpretations of their experience.  A particular concern will be with experiences related to their associational rights. Besides, various focus group discussions (FGDs) were conducted with firm managers and employees. Moreover, secondary sources including relevant published research findings and literature were deliberately consulted. Finally, the data generated from the preceding instruments were analysed using the integration of narrative, thematic, content, and document analysis strategies.

3. Ethiopia’s state-led industrialisation and co-opted labour institutions

The Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) assumed political power following the demise of the military regime in 1991. It is noted that the ideological antecedent of EPRDF was one that heavily resonated with Marxism. Also, the party’s strong social-political bases stemmed from regional liberation movements and the mobilisation of peasants in the country’s rural area. As a result, its ideological and development policy imperatives were predominately focused on the rural population and the country’s small-scale agricultural economy (Kassahun 2016:1–22). Accordingly, the industrial sector, urban dwellers, and the industrial proletariats played only marginal roles in Ethiopia’s political economy until 2005. As a result, that both the employer element of the industrial sector of the economy and the industrial workers received marginal attention from the government during these years. Similarly, specific to the labour sector, the ideology had significantly affected the number of industrial jobs and suppressed labour standards as well as the aspirations of workers for strong labour rights institutions (Markakis 2011:251–252; Hardy and Hauge 2019:13).

Ethiopia’s industrial policies since 2005 could be characterised by centralised and co-opted approaches to associational rights of workers and labour rights institutions. The country’s activist industrial policy prioritised an increasing number of employed persons and skills transfers over labour standards.[2] Consequently, Ethiopia’s state-led industrialisation supported cheap and less-protected labour policies as part of its investment incentive packages to attract FDI, particularly in the labour-intensive garments and apparel industries (Hardy and Hauge 2019:1). From the vantage point of the global garment manufacturers, the increasingly super-competitive nature of the global apparel sector was forcing them to find new production locations where a cheap and less-organised labour force was found (Oya and Schaefer 2019:387–388). 

Ethiopia’s state-led industrialisation has implemented various mechanisms towards disciplining and suppressing the collective voices of its local labour force. Weakening the powers and roles of the country’s labour rights institutions has been among those repressive measures of the country’s active industrial policy. In this regard, the Confederation of Ethiopian Trade Unions (CETU) has been the primary target institution (Bersoufekad 2003; Hardy and Hauge 2019:13-14).

CETU, which replaced the All-Ethiopia Trade Unions in 1993, was the highest representative of Ethiopian Workers at the national level. Concerning its organisational structure, CETU has been serving at the top of the institutional hierarchy to deliberate on the national labour policy issues with the Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs (MoLSA) and the Ethiopian Employer’s Federation. Below CETU, there are currently nine sectoral federations (with different levels of responsibilities), followed by firm-level trade unions. In 2019, of 300 000 workers in factories, only 20 000 (7%) had representative trade unions. This, in turn, shows or illustrates that membership has been extremely low owing to the suppressive industrial traditions towards associational rights (Hardy and Hauge 2019:14). Another devastating problem is that the 45 000 workers who are currently employed across the seven IPs of the country are totally beyond the reach of the CETU, and their rights to freedom of association are categorically denied.[3]

In principle, institutions such as CETU are required to effectively and independently channel workers’ voices into improvements in wages and other working conditions by influencing government policies and actions. Unfortunately, the CETU has only had a negligible influence on the overarching developmental plans of Ethiopia and their contributions towards improving the working conditions of workers. As a result, the country’s industrial labour force has continued to suffer from the government’s cheap and weak labour policies and practices (Yirgalem 2019: XI). As the findings revealed, those global apparel manufacturers across the country’s IPs still pay the least basic monthly salary in the world, that ranges from 22 to 34 US$. This has forced local workers to struggle to get by, let alone save any money or send cash home to their families in the countryside (Barrett and Baumann-Pauly 2019:11–12). In practice, the CETU did not object to the wider objectives of the country’s state-led industrialisation. It is important to note that in an interview, a senior CETU official described the organisation as a mediator between the developmental objectives of the Ethiopian state and the interests of workers.

One of the government’s strategies has also been the formal restrictions against CETU’s access to workers at their workplaces such access could create awareness and train workers to improve their class consciousness. In this regard, both the government and the employing firms insist that associational rights shall not be pushed (promoted) by CETU or by any outside actors, but by workers themselves (Hardy and Hauge 2919:14). In coordination with employing firms, the Ethiopian government frequently created negative impressions in the minds of workers, which delegitimised CETU, the sectorial federations, and firm-level labour unions, thereby creating mutual distrust among workers and their representative institutions. Other institutional limitations of CETU and its affiliated labour representative institutions are that they are understaffed, poorly financed, and have limited experience and skills to effectively confront the repressive mechanisms of both the government and employers against the collective voices of workers.

The other labour protection institutions which have been systematically weakened by Ethiopia’s state-led industrialisation are the Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs (MoLSA) and its regional affiliates, Bureaus of Labour and Social Affairs (BoLSA). MoLSA and BoLSA are government institutions with the power to monitor the enforcement of national as well as international labour rights, including the collective labour rights of workers at workplaces. Nevertheless, as sufficiently testified by workers and CETU experts, effective labour rights standards have not been enforced. Instead, the ideological priorities of Ethiopia’s state-led industrial development path (rapid industrialisation and FDI promotion) have been emphasised over labour standards. As a result, the government has deliberately eroded the monitoring activities of these labour inspection institutions and instead has used them to curb the collective voices of workers to attain its industrial development ambitions. On the other hand, according to discussants at the study sites, the government has promoted pro-investment agencies such as the Industrial Park Development Corporation (IPDC), Investment Commission (IC), and Ministry of Trade and Industry (MoTI). [4]

As the key informants revealed, compared to other law enforcing institutions, MoLSA has been the least-financed and least-organised ministerial office. The government rather empowered its pro-investment government agencies such as IC and IPDC to handle labour relations.[5]  For instance, the Industrial Peace Directorate Office, which is responsible for the Deputy-Commissioner of IC, has currently been formed to handle labour matters including labour strikes.[6] It has also been only after 2018 that MoLSA and BoLSA have opened offices across the country’s IPs, following the various forms of ‘wildcat’ strikes at Bole Lemi 1, Hawassa, and Eastern Industrial Zones.

Moreover, the government co-opted MoLSA and BoLSA, directing their efforts towards sharing and prioritising the country’s national vision of facilitating industrial catch-up over social upgrading.[7] Finally, the repressive tactics of Ethiopia’s active industrial policy have also extended to restrict other human rights organisations including the media. They prevented the media from visiting industrial workplaces and reporting the actual working conditions at the industrial parks. Reports about the labour conditions at the country’s IPs have, therefore, been scant.

4.  Industrial Parks: Places where associational rights are exceptionally suppressed

Existing literature usually emphasises the economic upgrading benefits of Industrial Parks (IPs), such as industrial upgrading, linkages, skill transfer, and export earnings. As such, the implications of IPs on the social upgrading of workers have been marginal in the industrial policy debate (Gereffi and Frederick 2010:18). This has been demonstrated across those emerging and late-comer economies of South East Asia and a few Sub-Saharan African countries. Likewise, Ethiopia’s IP policies have been direct emulations of the South East Asian model. The Ethiopian government has also expanded IP infrastructure to attract foreign investors in the labour-intensive garment industries (Nicolas 2017:4). Currently, seven IPs are operating in the country and creating industrial jobs for 90 000 workers. From this can plausibly be inferred that the Ethiopian government’s IP policy concerning the labour sector prioritises facilitating job creation and industrial upgrading over decent work and working conditions. Hence, the quality of employment has not been the policy priority of Ethiopia’s state-led industrialisation, particularly concerning the country’s IPs.[8]

Ethiopia’s state-led industrialisation has managed to promote FDI in the country’s IPs and especially their labour-intensive garment sectors. In effect, as experts from both ILO[9] and CETU[10] clearly explained, as part of its ideological commitment to many emerging garment manufacturing destination countries, the government of Ethiopia has held forth its cheap and disciplined labour force to multinational global garment manufacturers and brands as an incentive to invest. Accordingly, the country’s IPs have been appropriated in a manner that responded to the demands of these multinational firms to achieve low production costs by offering poverty wages. In addition to cheap labour, multinational companies wanted the Ethiopian government to ensure that the country’s IPs would be free from any form of labour strikes or industrial protests which could disrupt their production process (Oya and Schaefer 2019:386). In response, the government employs de facto or de jure labour control mechanisms across the country’s IPs to suppress the collective labour rights of workers such as freedom of association, the right to collective bargaining, and the right to industrial action.

As part of its repressive measures, the government has securitised and militarised the country’s IPs and thereby put psychological and physical pressures on those workers who claimed their freedom of association. Furthermore, informants, who were former employees at Bole Lemi 1, Hawassa, and Eastern Industrial sites, and victims of police arrests, reported that the government employed its criminal justice system against workers who have allegedly engaged in the country’s political protests and ‘wildcat’ strikes in 2017.[11]  To silence their voices, workers were arrested and treated with physical violence by the police and security forces across the country’s IPs. These violations of rights have been common mechanism of the Ethiopian government. This, in turn, has prevented workers from freely deliberating to motivate better working conditions including associational rights.  Besides, the government blocked all the possible institutional avenues through which workers could share their voices with external stakeholders and human rights organisations about their working conditions at the IPs.[12]

Following the preceding national measures of Ethiopia’s state-led industrialisations imposed upon the labour sector at the country’s IPs, workers at these sites have been exceptionally deprived of their basic labour and human rights at work. Most importantly, their associational rights have been completely suppressed across the country’s IPs, so it was impossible to find a single formally registered labour union. In this regard, it may be added that such a categorical denial of associational rights of workers at the country’s IPs was not experienced by workers outside the IPs. For example, most garment firms operating outside the IPs, such as Kombolcha Textile, Almeda, and AIKAADIS, have already ensured the freedom of association of their employees.[13]  As a result, workers of these major garment exporters outside the parks have exercised their rights to collective bargaining and have developed mutually agreed collective agreements governing their employment relations. 

The repressive measures against the collective voices of local industrial workers at the country’s IPs have also been enforced by making use of multinational apparel industries. First of all, these industries strongly contested all the external efforts either by CETU or by other labour rights initiatives towards unionisation of workers at IPs, claiming that such external drives are unlawful acts of external intrusion into their internal human resource management.[14] Secondly, the government employed firms standing against any external initiatives towards unionisation of workers at the IPs.[15] In this way, the workers’ legitimate quest for strong and independent unions that could firmly stand for the improvements of their working conditions was systematically repressed.[16] Accordingly, as Oya and Schaefer (2019:396) and Anner (2015:169) plausibly explained, managers of multinational apparel industries in Ethiopia’s IPs have emulated the experiences of their counterparts operating in Bangladesh and Mauritius by forming co-opted and affiliated institutions with artificial ‘workers’ councils’. 

However, to stage such ‘workers’ councils’ as trade unions in some of the apparel industries in Ethiopia’s IPs has been in violation of Ethiopia’s international commitments, the country’s constitution, and the labour proclamation – since the manner of their formation has not been on the bases of free, active, and independent participation of workers.[17] Similarly, workers did not accept the councils’ members as their independent representatives, questioning their legality and their poor track records in promoting workers’ protection.[18] Accordingly, although the firms’ managers claimed that ‘workers’ councils’ can better promote employees’ interests than formally institutionalised trade unions, informants from the workers testified otherwise.[19]  An additional account about  these councils’ affiliations was that members of the councils, as informants from the employing firms, projected and blamed the poor treatment of workers at the sites (poverty wages and other non-wage conditions of work) on poor industrial culture, low efficiency of workers, and the limitation of government.[20]  From these accounts, it is plausible to infer that the ‘workers’ councils’ stood for the firms’ management rather than being the voices of workers. 

Global garment manufacturers operating across Ethiopia’s IPs employed various repressive measures against the freedom of information, expression, and association of their workers. In this regard, workers’ exchanges of ideas with one another and with other third-party stakeholders about employment relations have been treated by employing firms as serious disciplinary offences, for such an attempt breaches the firms’ secrets.[21]  As a result, workers were required to refrain from exposing their working conditions, including the denial of associational rights, to labour inspectors from human rights organisations, brands’ labour auditors, and media. Only affiliated members and co-opted members of the ‘workers’ councils’ have been allowed to communicate with external labour rights organisations and compliance auditors. Hence, firm managers often intimidated workers with wage deductions and termination of employment if they found them discussing problems and solutions for their working conditions.

From a human rights perspective, such a broader and restrictive confidentiality clause imposed on workers by employers in the country’s IPs is a gross violation of the human rights of workers as human beings to freely express their ideas, views, and aspirations. Furthermore, from a labour rights perspective, this infringes upon the associational rights of workers, which are protected by the Ethiopian laws, the international human and labour rights standards, and buyer codes.[22] Finally, from the perspective of CSR[23] of buyers, firms’ action to prevent workers from providing information to buyers, which is essential to the meaningful enforcement of labour standards, violates brands’ codes of conduct. Thus, such a broader restriction to freedom of expression and associational rights of workers seriously hampers the operation of buyers’ monitoring programs that necessitate workers’ involvement.

Similarly, although the Ethiopian case is not an exception to this context, multinational garment firms across the country’s IPs deliberately overloaded workers through overtime work and confined them to tight work schedules. This has put time constraints on workers to discuss their working conditions actively and collectively. Besides, firm managers and supervisors do not allow workers to initiate any moves towards their associational rights at the workplace and inside the IPs. Similarly, they rejected the CETU’s initiative to organise workers at IPs, claiming that the right to unionisation shall not be instigated by outside pressures. When workers organised themselves outside the park, they got recognition from the BoLSA office, and finally, their certificate was communicated to their employers. But their employers were not willing to accept it. Instead, they imposed punitive and unlawful disciplinary measures on those employees who had been involved in the unionisation process.  Finally, as noted by the president of CETU[24], all the above direct and systematic restrictions to the associational rights and bargaining powers of local workers by the firms concerned have been tacitly realised by the Ethiopian government.

In a similar vein, global garment brands, which have been sourcing from Ethiopia’s IPs, are participants in these violations of associational rights of local industrial workers. Although they accepted the fundamentals of associational rights of workers, they used to agree with the arguments of the firms. Hence, they also claimed that the drives for freedom of association and the rights to collective bargaining came from outside forces. As discussants unanimously claimed, however, questions of freedom of association must come from the workers themselves.[25]

Discussants from ILO, CETU, MoLSA, and BoLSA added that brands’ poor labour auditing practices have been part of the violation. The brands usually employ, among others, third-party labour auditing mechanisms, which enforce short annual visits to the factories to monitor the enforcement of associational rights of workers. The inevitable results are the absence of meaningful consultation mechanisms with workers, a lack of transparency of the audit results, and failures to correct violations. 

The above explanations rightfully reflect the compelling argument of Anner (2015:153) and Oya and Schaefer (2019:393) that global brands and their supplier firms did not want to see the enforcement of the associational rights of workers because of two major reasons. First, the existence of strong and independent unions is inevitably meant to consolidate the collective pressures of workers like collective bargaining and various forms of industrial action, including strikes. This will, in turn, necessitate employers to improve the existing poverty wages. Likewise, allowing associational rights of workers legitimises and promotes various forms of industrial actions that may disrupt the flow of firms’ and buyers’ production networks. Hence, as rightfully explained by Oya and Schaefer (2019:396–397), global garment manufacturers and brands operating across Ethiopia’s IPs do not allow the consolidation of the bargaining powers of their workers since the existing trends of the global apparel transaction which are hypercompetitive, uninterrupted, and just-in-time production systems could not allow them to do so.

As sufficiently explained by CETU, there has been a common track record across the fast fashion garment industries.[26] After exploiting the environment and the local labour force, multinational garment manufacturers have been widely known for moving their production locations to other destination countries where labour standards are not policy priorities.[27] In this regard, most garment companies operating across Ethiopia’s IPs came from Bangladesh, China and India after the recent rises in production costs, particularly of increasing wages, and growing pressures for labour standards there (Staritz, Plank and Morris 2016:7). Reiterating this claim, brand representatives as discussants indicated that low labour cost and weak labour practice have been among their underlying incentives to invest in Ethiopia. [28]

The preceding restrictions to freedom of association have made workers across Ethiopia’s IPs voice-less with no formally registered labour unions. However, this has not prevented them from informally organising themselves and conducting various forms of ‘wildcat’ strikes towards improving their working conditions. For instance, China experienced 127 000 incidents of industrial action making claims for better wages and working conditions (Elfstrom and Kuruvilla 2014; cited in Oya and Schaefer: 2019:398). Similarly, in Vietnam, the number of labour unrest incidents that mostly targeted foreign manufacturers increased from 60 per year in 1995 to over 900 per year in 2011 (Oya and Schaefer 2019:398).

In Ethiopia, various ‘wildcat’ strikes have been common across the country’s IPs, particularly since 2014. These informal labour strikes were fertile ground for the unprecedented wave of popular mobilisations in the country. Accordingly, workers in the industrial parks were active with popular protests from 2014 to 2018, particularly in Oromia Region. According to workers as discussants, the underlying objectives of the popular protests were to contest the Addis Ababa Integrated Master Plan and the government’s repressive measures against political dissent.[29]  Furthermore, opposing the government’s policy of expropriation of farmlands to expand IPs without fair payment for compensation and attending to environmental standards has also been among the major demands of protesters.  These major demands ranged from better working conditions (better wages, standard meals, measures against sexual harassment, and respect for freedom of association) to broader national political demands including regime change (Kidist 2019:29–52). The class consciousness of the workers at the research sites was improved by the infiltration of opposition political party members and political activists.[30]

The calls for regime change ultimately resulted in the demise of Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF)-led EPRDF leadership. Consequently in April 2018, a new administration assumed political power under the political leadership of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. As part of its relatively liberal socio-economic and political reforms, the new administration has started to ease those repressive policies, freed political prisoners, and removed restrictions on freedom of expression and association. Consequently, a series of measures towards political liberation were instituted, and workers were able to protest poverty-inducing wages, suppression of associational rights, substandard meal services, and sexual harassment of female employees.  

The new administration under the Prosperity Party (PP) has come up with a more protective labour proclamation (Proclamation No. 1156/19 2019). To promote the collective labour rights of workers, it maintains that the minimum membership level to form a first-level trade union shall be ten (Proclamation No. 1156/19 2019: Art. 114(2)). It still allows employees of small enterprises (whose total numbers are less than ten) to establish a general trade union together with workers in other small undertakings (Proclamation No. 1156/19 2019). Moreover, trade unions are entitled to jointly establish federations and even confederations. Nevertheless, after three years of regime change, few practical improvements have been made concerning the freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining of industrial workers, particularly across the country’s IPs. For example, the freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining have not been enforced across the country’s IPs. As a result, beyond a few policy reforms and political liberalisations of the current administration, the fundamental ideological assumption of a developmental state and suppressive labour practices continue across the country’s IPs.

5. Peculiarities of Ethiopia’s state-led industrialisation

Concerning the implications of state-led industrialisation on the collective voices of local industrial workers, Ethiopia’s experience shares a common culture with the scholarship and actual performances of countries of both the East Asian and the Sub-Saharan African regions. As such, the model has historically proved potent for achieving rapid industrialisation though it has curbed the collective voices of workers. Yet, Ethiopia’s state-led industrialisation has its peculiarities in its structural limitations. It has to be clear that the initial conditions, which were instrumental for the successful economic returns of the ideology in the East Asian countries, were not present when Ethiopia launched state-led industrialisation in 2005. These initial conditions (in East Asia) include a relatively high standard of education, a high level of labour efficiency, meritocratic and effective bureaucracy, and well-developed infrastructure (Herms 1997:1). Most importantly, Ethiopia’s state-led industrialisation has particularly failed to facilitate technology, skill and knowledge transfers which are critical to the efficiency and productivity of the country’s labour force (Startz and Whitfield 2019).  

Similarly, while the East Asian states had been going through successful and rapid industrialisation in those labour-intensive garment and apparel industries during the 1970s and 1980s, questions of labour standards were not pressing agendas in the international political economy (Gereffi and Frederick 2010:18). However, since the past two decades, particularly after the disaster at Rana Plaza in April 2013 in Bangladesh, which killed around 1 200 people, the quest for labour and human rights standards have increasingly become compelling reputational and corporate social responsibility requirements for global apparel manufacturers and brands to compete in the global market (Staritz, Plank, and Morris 2016:21–22). As a result, the wages and non-wage conditions have recently been significantly improved even in those leading global apparel supplier countries of South Asian countries. On the contrary, however, the conditions of Ethiopia’s local industrial workers in various global apparel manufacturers have continued to remain exceptionally gloomy (Barrett and Baumann-Pauly 2019:9). Accordingly, Ethiopia’s bold ideological appeal to the East Asian model of the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s has failed to actively consider the current global initiatives towards labour and human rights standards and sustainable industrialisation. 

Ethiopia’s suppressive labour practices against the associational rights of its industrial workers have also been accompanied by the country’s inability to increase poverty wages. Though the majority of East Asian states such as China, Bangladesh, and Vietnam have still been hostile towards associational rights, they have been significantly improving their minimum living wages (Oya and Schaefer 2019:389). For example, Bangladesh, which is a country with a cost of living comparable to Ethiopia, had been experiencing the lowest pay in the region. However, Bangladesh’s average minimum wage (95 USD), which has repeatedly been criticised as inadequate by the country’s union leaders, has been more than threefold the average basic salary being paid to Ethiopian industrial workers (26USD) (Barrett and Baumann-Pauly 2019:9). Accordingly, Ethiopia’s state-led industrialisation has exceptionally enforced double suppression against the conditions of industrial workers through its poverty wages and its repressive practice against associational rights.

6. Conclusion

Since 2005, Ethiopia’s industrial policy imperatives for state-led-industrialisation were direct emulations of the experiences of East Asian countries. As a result, the Ethiopian government’s adoption of the Plan for Action for Sustainable Development and Eradication of Poverty (PASDEP) at the beginning of 2005 can be taken as a significant policy transformation in the country’s development policymaking. It was designed to ensure structural and socio-economic transformation through rapid industrialisation under the guidance of an activist and development-oriented state. 

Nevertheless, the ideology has contributed to the predominantly co-opted and suppressive labour practices against the collective voices of workers, particularly in the multinational apparel manufacturers across the country’s IPs. Thus, the government and employing firms were used to enforce de facto or de jure suppressive labour control mechanisms against labour rights institutions and workers thereby repressing the freedom of association, the right to collective bargaining, and the right to industrial actions of local industrial workers. 

Unless Ethiopia’s bold ideological commitment to the East Asian ‘developmental state’ model for state-led industrialisation is revisited, the suppressive labour practices against the voices of local apparel industrial workers will continue to be pressing matters in the sector’s labour and human rights agendas. This is notto suggest that Ethiopia needs to abandon its state-led industrialisation development path. Most emphatically, it rather provides an insight into the policy spaces through which the country’s activist industrial policy could still strike a reasonable balance between facilitating industrial catch-up and ensuring labour standards – leading to inclusive, peaceful, and sustainable industrial labour relations.


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[1] FGD with CETU experts, Addis Ababa, 20 February 2020.

[2] FGD with ILO regional experts, Addis Ababa, 24 February 2020.

[3] Key informant interview with Mr Angesome Yohannes, President of the Industrial Federation of Textile Leather & Garment Workers Trade Union (IFTLGWTU), Addis Ababa, 26 February 2020.

[4] FGD with CETU experts, Addis Ababa, 20 February 2020.

[5] Key informant interviews with BoLSA representatives at the EIZ, Hawassa, and Bole Lemi 1 IPs, 29 February, 2 and 4 March 2020.          

[6] Key informant interview with Ayalew Ahmed, Vice President, Confederation of Ethiopian Trade Union (CETU), Addis Ababa, 20 February 2020.

[7]  FGD with CETU experts, Addis Ababa, 20 February 2020.

[8] Key informant interview with Mr Kassahun Folo, President of CETU, Addis Ababa, 24 February 2020           

[9] Key Informant Interview with Mr Evans, ILO Regional office Representative, Key informant interview, Addis Ababa, 25 February 2020.

[10] Key informant interviews with Kassahun Folo President of CETU, Addis Ababa, 24 February 2020

[11] Key informant interviews with BoLSA representatives at the EIZ, Hawassa, and Bole Lemi 1 IPs, 29 February, 2 and 4 March 2020.

[12] Interviews with former employees at Bole Lemi 1, Hawassa, and EIZ, 25, 26 and 29 February 2020.

[13] Key informant interview with Mr Angesome Yohannes, President of the Industrial Federation of Textile Leather & Garment Workers Trade Union (IFTLGWTU), Addis Ababa, 26 February 2020.

[14] FGDs with employees at Hawassa and Bole Lemi 1 IPs, 26 and 29 February 2020.

[15] FGD with an interview with CETU experts, Addis Ababa, 20 February 2020.

[16] FGD with ILO regional experts, Addis Ababa, 24 February 2020.

[17] FGD with CETU experts, Addis Ababa, 20 February 2020.

[18] FGDs with employees of apparel firms at the EIZ, Hawassa, and Bole Lemi 1 IPs, 25, 26 and 29 February 2020.

[19] In-depth Interviews with former employees at Bole Lemi 1, Hawassa, and Eastern Industrial sites, February 25, 26, and 29 2020. 

[20] Key informant interview with Members of workers’ councils of apparel firms at Hawassa and Bole Lemi 1 IPs; 24 and 25 February 2020.

[21] Key informant interviews with managers of apparel firms at the EIZ, Hawassa, and Bole Lemi 1 IPs; 24 and 26 February 2020. 

[22] Key informant interviews with BoLSA representatives at the EIZ, Hawassa, and Bole Lemi 1 IPs, 29 February,2 and 4 March 2020.

[23]The term CSR infers that employing firms as well as their respective global brand buyers, beyond their conventional thinking to reduce the production cost, are morally bound to ensure ethically sustainable labour relations by observing minimum labour standards (Myers 2014:45).

[24] Key informant interview with Ayalew Ahmed, Vice President, Confederation of Ethiopian Trade Union (CETU), Addis Ababa, 20 February 2020.

[25] FGD with CSR and sustainability managers of leading global apparel brands sourcing from manufacturers operating at Ethiopia’s IPs, Addis Ababa, 24 February 2020.

[26] FGD with CETU experts, Addis Ababa, 20 February 2020.

[27] FGD with CETU experts, Addis Ababa, 20 February 2020.

[28] FGD with CSR and sustainability managers of leading global apparel brands sourcing from manufacturers operating at Ethiopia’s IPs, Addis Ababa, 24 February 2020.

[29] FGDs with employees at Hawassa and Bole Lemi 1 IPs, 26 and 29 February 2020.

[30] FGDs with employees at Hawassa and Bole Lemi 1 IPs, 26 and 29 February 2020.


Mohammed Seid Ali
Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science and International Studies, Bahir Dar University, Ethiopia