A feminist vision to address labour exploitation in Ethiopia

Workers in a shoe factory in the Eastern Industrial Zone in Ethiopia. Photo: UNIDO/Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0)

Many Ethiopian feminist activists, myself included, currently share concerns regarding the new trends in feminized labour and the expansion of employment opportunities for Ethiopian women in rural and urban areas of the country. As feminist activists and researchers, we applaud the encouraging trends in women’s employment in Ethiopia, including the extension of paid maternity leave for federal employees to four months. However, we are also alarmed by the absence of safeguard measures and efforts to ensure dignified work and decent wages within large-scale job creation efforts, such as industrial parks.

Recently, Michael Posner, Assistant Secretary of State in the Obama Administration, described Ethiopia as the new “low-wage frontier […] with the dubious distinction of offering the lowest pay anywhere in the worldwide clothing supply chain”.

A large swathe of poor Ethiopian women migrants from rural parts of the country work in cities as domestic workers, with a high level of insecurity and threats to their wellbeing. In the past decade, the supply and demand of domestic work in Ethiopia has been highly affected by the migration of tens of thousands of young women to countries of the Gulf region for domestic work. This relative decrease in the available labour pool has led to an increase in the pay offered to domestic workers, and perhaps also to better treatment in people’s homes. In rural parts of the country, there are efforts to build childcare facilities within the Safety Net, a major food security program run by the government and supported by development partners. However, the percentage of women who can benefit from such policies is relatively low. Many Ethiopian women who work for pay operate in the informal sector as daily laborers or as traders, with no job security or protection.

Women with disabilities are particularly underrepresented in the labour market and under-served by financial institutions, finding it more difficult to obtain loans for their involvement in businesses. Despite the Proclamation on the Right to Employment of Persons with Disabilities, employers are often reluctant to hire women with disabilities, and they usually fail to provide reasonable accommodation when they do.

A bold feminist vision for job creation in Ethiopia puts women at the centre of the economic growth agenda over a short-term effort to create immediate jobs.

In the past decade, however, we have seen a fundamental shift in how the Ethiopian government views women, and there is now a clear recognition of women as a major, if largely untapped, economic force. It follows that most of the jobs that are created in the “industrial cities” within Hawassa, Kombolcha, and Mekelle, and on the peripheries of Addis Ababa offer feminized and unskilled jobs in textile manufacturing. Ethiopian cities like Hawassa have seen the opening of a large industrial complex that aims to generate one billion US dollars a year in exports, and which when fully occupied should create jobs for 60,000 people, the vast majority of them women.

However, we understand the potential benefits to employees of such large-scale interventions to be mixed at best. Where men work in the industrial parks, it is often in managerial positions with clear differences in power relations vis-à-vis women. Gender-related issues arising out of the mobilization of so many women for the purposes and with the promise of “blue-collar” employment are already apparent. 

A study of Ethiopian workers released in October 2016 by the US National Bureau of Economics Research and Oxford University found low-wage factories in industrial parks to be less desirable, more dangerous and with lower wages than self-employment in the informal sector, with 77% of the study cohort leaving factory jobs within the first year.

A sustainable model of longer-term wealth creation for corporations and for Ethiopia would entail increased wages, better training, and housing.

In his article quoted above, Michael Posner urged corporations hiring these women to embrace a long-term investment model in order to make their production profitable and sustainable over time. He argues that while corporations are beholden to their shareholders to make profit, a sustainable model of longer-term wealth creation for corporations and for Ethiopia would entail increased wages, better training, and housing for the young women who leave their homes to work in these clothing factories.

As feminist observers, we agree with Posner’s analysis. Feminist concerns relate to the availability and quality of housing that women leaving rural homes are able to access, protection and safety issues, the health impacts of factory work, and the unintended burden of added household tasks on women left behind in the homes of migrant workers. A gendered analysis would go further and ask where the women go when they quit in such large numbers. It would also seek to avert a crisis from potentially swelled peri-urban areas, which we can expect to be populated by low-skilled young women with few resources for survival.

We require a stand-alone feminist campaign that calls for a new vision of job creation that prioritizes dignified work and decent wages for young Ethiopian women as well as men. A bold feminist vision for job creation in Ethiopia puts women at the centre of the economic growth agenda over a short-term effort to create immediate jobs. An investment into jobs in sanitary and safe conditions, offering liveable wages for women and men workers, will yield better income from the economic investment of the industrial park in reducing the efforts, money, and time allocated to retraining new recruits due to turnover.

Ensuring the welfare of workers beyond fair wages, investments in housing solutions and ensuring safety from harm and exploitation at the hands of male supervisors will not only serve Ethiopian women but also, the Ethiopian economy which has to provide—according to World Bank estimates—two million new jobs every year. Ethiopia cannot afford to ignore the harms posed by a short-term vision of job creation that unsustainably exploits the labour of its population.


This piece is part of a blog series focusing on the gender dimensions of business and human rights. The blog series is in partnership with the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre, the Danish Institute for Human Rights and OpenGlobalRights. The views expressed in the series are those of the authors. For more on the latest news and resources on gender, business, and human rights, visit this portal.