Zemen Zerihun thought he’d left farming behind and found the ticket to a better life when he began a job cutting fabric for a clothing company at a massive industrial park in southern Ethiopia.
But the 22-year-old ended up quitting within months, weary of working eight hours a day, six days a week and still not making ends meet earning $35 a month.
Managers were so strict they would go into bathrooms and yank out workers deemed to be taking too long, he said. His supervisor would loudly berate him as “slow” and “lazy” when he failed to keep pace on the production line, he told AFP.
“After I joined the company, I suffered,” he said. “The supervisors treat you like animals.” Experiences like his highlight a major challenge facing Ethiopia’s push to embrace industrialisation and become less dependant on agriculture.
By attracting foreign investors through cheap labour, it wants to follow the model of China and other Asian nations in creating a robust manufacturing sector that can offer badly needed jobs for its young workforce.
But despite high unemployment, young Ethiopians are not going along with it, preferring to quit rather than stay in jobs where they feel underpaid and disrespected.
Thousands of employees have already walked out of the country’s new and burgeoning network of industrial parks.
At the Hawassa Industrial Park, where Zemen worked, staff turnover in 2017-18 “hovered around 100 percent,” according to a May 2019 report from the Stern Center for Business and Human Rights at New York University.
The added recruitment and training costs are a main reason why, in the eyes of manufacturers, Ethiopian labour has “turned out to be considerably more costly than the government had initially advertised,” the report said.
Government officials say they are taking steps to address workers’ concerns while balancing them with industry representatives’ interests.
But labour organisers argue the measures are too little, too late, leaving them no choice but to begin unionising the parks -- a development Zemen says is long overdue.