AGOA Suspension Cuts Hope, Not Conflict

Jul 17 , 2022
By Robel Mulat

While the United States provides hundreds of millions of dollars in critical humanitarian aid to the most vulnerable people in the Horn of Africa, thousands of workers have been laid off from their steady jobs at an industrial park due to a recent decision by the same country. Hawassa Industrial Park, which has over a dozen factories and around 35,000 employees, is facing a threat. Because Ethiopia has been suspended from the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), many jobs could be lost, affecting poor women, who disproportionately make up the majority of garment workers.

Ever since President Joe Biden decided to suspend Ethiopia from AGOA, it has been devastating to think of the potential impact on the factory workers, while the war actors have little to lose. As a Hawassa resident, I have yet to find a reasonable explanation for why they deserved this punishment.

What role did they play in the civil war? Why should they pay the price when they did nothing to contribute to the fighting?

I remember July 13, 2016, like it was yesterday. It was a bright and sunny day, as well as a hopeful one. Despite its reputation as a tourist destination, Hawassa became a source of hope for economic development and industrialisation following the establishment of the industrial park. The city’s residents were ecstatic during the inauguration, which promised to create 60,000 new jobs.

As a participant in that exciting inauguration ceremony, I recall how many other city dwellers were present and how optimistic they were about the park's future economic contribution. Authorities of the city looked forward to increased economic activity as a result of the park. Youths hoped they would get gainful employment and support their rural families.

It was not all perfect. Much has been written about low pay. Due to Ethiopia's high unemployment rate, workers are frequently forced to accept low-wage jobs. Other workers, on the other hand, are grateful for the employment, the work experience they receive and the promise of a steady job.

In 2020, President Biden was elected to office. Barely a year later, he decided to turn the hope into frustration using an untimely, unrelated, and unconvincing decision to suspend Ethiopia from AGOA.

I have met with a variety of workers who are currently in a difficult situation, particularly after global fashion giant PVH Corp closed its manufacturing facility and others gave warnings to quit. For many young women, insecurity over their job, combined with high inflation, has led to a sense of alienation and desperation. Almost a year since the Biden administration withdrew Ethiopia's benefits under the AGOA due to "gross violations of internationally recognised human rights," employees in the park are still at a loss how this relates to factory work.

Which types of human rights did they violate? Why should they, who support their families in the countryside, be punished?

There is much to be said about the economic and labour situation in the country. This much is true. A national minimum wage for industrial park workers is overdue. In addition, through collaboration with various colleges, it is necessary to raise awareness about how workers' living conditions can be improved.

However, when an unfair, untimely, and unreasonable action is taken against workers, most of them young women from rural areas, and many of them supporting households, we need to call it out loudly. If a person has a right to a dignified standard of living, is taking jobs away from them not a form of human rights violation? Is taking away people’s hopes and aspirations not a human rights violation?

Why should these innocent girls pay the price while contributing nothing to civil war?

One only hopes that the US president would reconsider the decision and that members of Congress would listen to the voices of thousands of strong young women. The workers' dreams and aspirations deserve to be restored. I am still hopeful.

PUBLISHED ON Jul 17,2022 [ VOL 23 , NO 1159]

Robel Mulat is an urban anthropologist based in Hawassa. He can be reached at

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