Ethiopian Needs To Empower Its ‘Paid Robots’

Feb 29 , 2020
By Yeshiwas Fentahun

Following the government's recent move toward political reform, different sections of society have been empowered by the mere possibility of living in a country where the laws of the land will have the ultimate say in their affairs. As a pilot for Ethiopian Airlines Group for 10 years, I have witnessed the extreme harshness of the company's administration, and perhaps that is why this recent national movement has planted a seed of optimism in my heart and the hearts of my colleagues.

Ethiopian Airlines has consistently achieved above-average growth and profitability in the last several years compared to its peers in the industry. In the first half of this year, the Airline reported just over half a billion dollars in profits. But this positive trend was made possible in spite of the company's archaic culture of intolerance and its deep-rooted perception that employees are nothing more than “paid robots.” This approach will not continue to be useful, nor should this culture be allowed to continue flourishing at Ethiopian.

Assuming the military-style human resource management approach at Ethiopian has not stifled its further growth and profitability in recent years, its continuation will have negative consequences. It may not have significantly hindered its growth, but this is partly because the company was an extension of the political state. At a time when there was relatively little freedom of speech and the rule of law was not respected, administrative decisions were made on the basis of three considerations: politics, profitability and nepotism.

Some administrative decisions that affected the life of employees were made for political reasons. Despite the level of non-interference enjoyed by the management, there were times that employees were punished for their political inclinations. Other times, the management would simply evaluate human resource administrative issues based on the impact it will have on the company’s profitability with zero regard for the individual's rights or the legality of the decisions made.

In other cases, the immediate supervisor’s perception of the employee in question played a pivotal role in the decision-making process. Similar offenses in other cases would result in completely different consequences. Of course, I agree that this is a simplified explanation of a complex process, but the point remains clear.

The old system of human resource management seemed like an extension of the state ideology at the time. Employees were treated like robots with little or no dignity. Better pay and benefits compared to national standards are seen as justifications for the abuse and lawlessness that is prevalent in the company. The nationwide suppression of free speech served as the basis for the company’s internal policy of censorship that prohibited any discussion of internal affairs in public. The lack of an efficient legal system in the country further emboldened the management to take measures which at times were obviously illegal. Instead of implementing healthy employee retention programs, the management’s easy reach to the country’s security institutions allowed it to restrict brain drain from the company through passport control at national borders.

With all these systems in place, and in a country where the political elite believed that economic development should be the sole target, it is understandable that Ethiopian’s management did not have the incentive to better itself or attempt to improve the conditions of employees.

But, the process of political reform that we are witnessing today requires significant changes be made to accommodate the associated shifts in expectations of employees. Employees have been empowered at the national level and they should be able to expect significant changes at the company level as well. Believing that the shift in expectations of employees for better administration is the result of the national level reform process would have helped Ethiopian’s management to better understand and embrace the changes.

In addition, the old ideology of a developmental state, which seemed to advocate that employees are just “paid robots,” is no longer in play. Internal policies and procedures of the company that reflected the lack of freedom of speech at a national level need to be scrapped and revised. Citizens are being empowered and Ethiopian’s human resource management must start to head in the same direction.

It is true that Ethiopian is one of the shining stars in the African sky. So far, that has been possible despite the company's lack of proper adherence to internal policies and procedures. But in light of the recent political reforms, it is time to change the company's culture in order to ensure its continued growth and meet the expectations of its employees for better administration.

It is time to recognise that employee productivity can be bolstered through the incorporation of democratic values into internal procedures and policies. Modern human resource management techniques that focus on increasing the individuals’ productivity and a sense of ownership need to be considered. Failure to do this may result in the slowdown of Ethiopian’s growth in the future. Obviously, this process will be lengthy, but the first step in the right direction towards that goal needs to be taken not later than now.

PUBLISHED ON Feb 29,2020 [ VOL 20 , NO 1035]

Yeshiwas Fentahun (, former chairperson at Ethiopian Airlines Group Basic Trade Union and former captain.

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