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Ethopia’s Garment Workers Are Struggling. Strong Unions Can Help.

Foreign investment in Ethiopia’s garment sector is growing. As the cost of labor and raw materials continues to rise in China, the Horn of Africa nation has positioned itself as a cheaper option, wooing businesses with tax exemptions, grants and low-interest loans as it ramps up its manufacturing capabilities.

At the same time, Ethiopia’s garment workers are among the poorest paid in the world, warns IndustriAll Global Union, a Copenhagen-based federation of 50 million workers from 140 countries.

A dearth of centralized bargaining and social dialogue is partly to blame, the group said. A recent investigation by IndustriAll found that a sewing machine operator might earn up to 1,150 Ethiopian Birr ($37), yet a room in the city of Hawassa costs an average of $2,000 Birr ($64).

To make ends meet, as many as four workers might cram themselves into a single room, IndustriAll said. Wages aren’t even paid on time: IndustriAll spoke to workers who complained of payments 11 days late. And while workers might earn production bonuses, they’re rarely enough to bring more than temporary relief.

A study by MyWage and the Confederation of Ethiopian Trade Unions concluded that garment workers need to make at least 4,130 Birr ($132) to survive—more if they have families. A survey of 1,000 garment workers from 52 factories revealed that 92.5 percent of workers in Ethiopia fell under this threshold, while 8 percent earned well below $35.

At Hawassa Industrial Park, Ethiopia’s largest manufacturing hub, workers make T-shirts that are sold in the United States for roughly $70—or nearly double their monthly wages. One factory, investigators said, employs 450 workers to make between 3,500 to 3,750 shirts per eight-hour shift. Lunch might be 30 minutes long, but if a factory doesn’t provide food at canteens, workers sometimes go without food until the end of their shifts.

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None of the workers IndustriAll interviewed said they belong to a trade union. Park management has been resistant to the idea, so negotiations over wages, transportation and health and safety are instead routed through employer-worker committees formed by the factories themselves. While 90 percent of garment workers are women, decision makers are primarily men.

IndustriAll argues that a collective bargaining strategy can help workers achieve better wages and working conditions. It expressed its support of the Industrial Federation of Garment Leather Textile Workers Union’s efforts to unionize Hawassa’s workers.

“As a collective, the workers can demand minimum living wages and better working conditions,” Christina Hajagos-Clausen, director for the textile and garment sector at IndustriAll, said in a statement. “Without representation by a strong union, the workers will continue to work under terrible conditions.”

IndustriAll plans to bring the conversation to international brands that source from Hawassa, such as PVH Corp., which owns Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger.

“We will discuss with [them] to respect workers’ rights and pay living wages,” Hajagos-Clausen said.

Hawassa Industrial Park currently employs 25,000 workers but has room for another 35,000. At full capacity, the park is expected to generate $1 billion in exports.