A worker in a garment factory in Ayka, Addis Ababa

A worker in a garment factory in Ayka, Addis Ababa

The debate on better wages and collective bargaining for textile and garment workers continued this week with discussions in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa.

A meeting on 'Organising in the international supply chain' in the textile and garment sector on Tuesday (22 May) brought together unions and stakeholders including the International Labour Organization (ILO)

With support from German political foundation Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, key players reminded the government of Ethiopia of its obligations to fully implement Convention 87 on freedom of association and the right to organise.

Further, the country should also implement a decent work agenda and the Sustainable Development Goals. Social dialogue will also stop union-bashing tactics by some employers that include terminating, transferring or demoting union leaders to weaken the union.

The 55,000 strong IndustriAll global union affiliate, the Industrial Federation of Textile, Leather and Garment Workers Union (IFTLGWU), 56% of whose members are women, says workers should be paid decent wages to live better lives and be able to look after their families.

The Confederation of Ethiopian Trade Unions (CETU), to which IFTLGWU is affiliated, supports the proposal and calls for minimum wages that meet workers' needs.

Government officials, the Ethiopian Investment Corporation, global brands and the Ayka Addis textile company, who were present at the meeting, discussed how decent wages benefited workers. The government emphasised the importance of social dialogue that included trade unions, employers and government.

With the list of global brands from North America, Europe, China and Asia sourcing from Ethiopia increasing, and 20 companies including PVH already sourcing from Hawassa Industrial Park, calls are being made for wages to be pegged using international benchmarks.

When fully operational, the park will house factories employing 60,000 workers. However, unions are questioning why they are being denied access to recruit members at Hawassa.

"We are fighting for living wages and for Ethiopian workers' rights. Therefore, we want restrictions stopping unions from organising to be removed," said Masho Beriku, from CETU's external and public relations department.

"This will enable us to grow the CETU membership from the current 550,000 to our target of two million. We also would like labour law reforms to protect workers' rights."

Ethiopia's Minister of Labour and Social Affairs, Hirut Woldemariam, said in a statement: "We are living in a society and an economy that is driven by globalisation. The textile and garment sector is a notable globalised business with high female proportion in its labour force. With the establishment of industrial parks, our country has positioned itself in supply chains in the garments sector".

The meeting was attended by affiliates from Bangladesh and South Africa who shared experiences on campaigning for better wages and collective bargaining.

The meeting followed calls earlier this month for an end to "poverty wages" in the Ethiopian garment industry.

The IFTLGWU  claims workers are paid around ETB600 (US$20) per month – and is campaigning for minimum wages above ETB3,373 ($121) – especially in the industrial parks set up by the government including Bole Lemi in Addis Ababa, Hawassa and Mekele.

The unions say they see minimum wages as a starting point in reversing the low wages, and want them to be included in the new labour laws under consideration. Eventually the unions want to shift the campaign to living wages.

Local media reports claim that earlier this month workers in four factories at the Bole Lemi Industrial Park near Addis Ababa went on strike demanding higher pay and a better working environment.