Ethiopia presents ‘huge opportunity’ to build sustainable garment industry.

3 Jul 2019

A Better Work country programme is to play a pivotal role in an ILO collaboration to develop an inclusive garment industry in Ethiopia.

Addis Ababa – Ethiopia’s plans to become the world’s next big destination for textile and fashion production was boosted with the launch this month of an innovative International Labour Organization program focused on ensuring decent working conditions for the thousands of new workers joining the industry.  Establishing a thriving garment and textile industry could provide work for up to 300 000 Ethiopian workers and is a key part of the country’s industry development strategy.

Ethiopia is well placed to become a sourcing location for global garment supply chains.  It has a rich history of textile making, is relatively close to potential markets and many of those markets provide it with low barriers to trade.  With a population of more than 100 million, it also boasts a large pool of potential workers.

From the outset, Ethiopia is looking to establish itself as an ethical sourcing destination.  Hence, its call to the ILO to help develop and advise on its plans.

“It’s exciting for us,” says the ILO’s head of programme, Kidist Chala. “Ethiopia is just starting out on the journey of building a manufacturing sector and it’s a great opportunity for the ILO to shape the growth of industries in ways that ensure that respect for human and labour rights, and principles of fairness and equity are built in from the start.”

Key ILO departments and global programmes such SCORE, INWORK, Labour Inspection/ Occupational Safety and Health Branch, Vision Zero Fund and Better Work will combine their expertise on how to work across apparel supply chains.  “Our goals are wide-ranging,” explains Chala. “With this programme we will promote sound industrial relations, strengthen enterprise level practices in terms of compliance with the labour law, gender equality, OSH and productivity improvement, build labour inspectorate capacity, and, ultimately, provide a blueprint for the rollout of decent work practices into other industries.”

Better Work, an ILO flagship programme to improve working conditions and competitiveness in the garment industry sees a big role ahead.  “Better Work has  more than a decade of experience in countries like Jordan, Vietnam and Cambodia that forms a solid platform from which to guide Ethiopia’s industry as it grows,” says Conor Boyle, global head of programme development. “We know the models that can make real change,” he adds.

Government on board

For Boyle, the early signs are positive.  “We are working closely with the government, employers and trade unions to collaborate on a new approach to garment sector development. From the beginning, we are working with labour inspectors about their role in building compliance with labour standards and laws so that the approach is sustainable and scalable.”

At the July launch event, Ethiopia’s Minister of Labour and Social Affairs, Dr. Ergogie Tesfay, spoke of Ethiopia’s intention to build a garment industry that considers the welfare of its workers.  “Our government is not only looking for attracting investment that can create more jobs but is focused on attracting quality investment that creates decent jobs and significantly changes workers’ lives,” she said.  In recent years, the government has invested heavily in industrial parks and is offering different incentives for investors.

Many workers attracted to the industry are likely to be entering the formal economy for the first time.  Better Work experience has shown that decent working conditions can profoundly improve both a worker’s own future prospects and the welfare of their families and communities.

It’s a point reinforced by Moussa Oumarou, ILO Deputy Director-General for Field Operations & Partnerships. “The huge opportunity of the garment industry in Ethiopia is that it will create sustainable businesses, offer jobs to the low skilled, to young workers, to women and migrant workers, Oumarou said. “These are the very people who need to be included when we talk of inclusive and sustainable growth.”

The productivity challenge

Growth, of any kind, will face obstacles in Ethiopia – the skills gap being high among them.  “There are more than a hundred garment factories already operating in the country”, explains Kidist Chala, “but productivity and wages are low, moreover working conditions need to improve.  That said, it’s an industry with a bright future and the ILO is enthusiastic to be a part of its development.”

Also at the launch, Kassahun Follo, head of the Confederation for Ethiopian Trade Unions, spoke of the need to work on the fundamentals.  “The right to unionize, low wages, housing shortages leading to harassment of employees and occupational safety issues are some of the challenges in the garment sector faces. We need to work together to ensure these challenges are addressed”. For its part, Ato Dawit Moges of the Ethiopian Industry Employers’ Federation, stressed his groups’ willingness to collaborate on working conditions and boost Ethiopia’s position in the global value chain.

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