There are around 35,000 people employed at factories in Hawassa Industrial Park, which is mainly involved in textile manufacturing. The formation of labour unions here is long overdue.

Thousands of workers employed by factories operating in the Hawassa Industrial Park are edging closer to form labour unions, a move surfacing after years of controversy.

The workforces of two of the 23 companies have begun forming unions, representing a small fraction of the 35,000 workers.

This comes after discussions in Addis Abeba last month between officials of the Ministry of Labour & Social Affairs, senior executives of the Industrial Parks Development Corporation, and representatives of companies operating in industrial parks, 90pc of which are foreign investments. Two years ago, there was a strike by workers in the park in Hawassa, 272Km away from the capital, over the right to establish a labour union, protesting low wages and uncomfortable working conditions.

For years, leaders of the Industrial Federation of Textile, Leather & Garment Workers' Trade Union have been voicing their concerns over the reluctance of factory managers inside the park to allow the formations of labour unions to represent workers.

"It's a milestone achievement," said Angesom Gebreyohannes, president of the Federation, which represents 54,000 members, organised under 113 labour unions, including those formed by workers of Kombolcha Industrial Park, the first to have a union. "The dispute over labour union formation was unsolved for two years despite its lawfulness."

Kassahun Follo, president of the Confederation of Ethiopian Trade Unions (CETU), shares Angesom's frustrations with the difficulties of forming unions.

"They have their rights," said Kassahun.

The unions are there to help industrial park workers bargain for better wages and benefits.

A 2019 study conducted by the New York University Stern Centre for Business and Human Rights discovered that garment factory workers in Ethiopia are the lowest paid in any major garment-producing country worldwide. They earn below 26 dollars a month, almost nine times lower than what their counterparts earn in Kenya and three times lower than workers in Bangladesh. The value showed almost no increase in Birr, except some adjustments on benefits, while witnessing a 38pc decline in dollar terms due to the depreciation of the Birr since then. This is situation labour leaders believe could have been averted had there been unions representing the labourers.

Executives managing the industrial park say the delay is due to factors outside of their control, attributing the COVID-19 pandemic to the slow process of forming labour unions.

"The discussion took time beyond our expectation," said Fistum Ketema, manager at Hawassa Industrial Park.

Chargeurs, a France-based company, is one of the 20 foreign companies whose workers have made headway in forming a union organised by a committee of seven. The company first set foot in the Park in 2017, producing textiles and garment accessories. To Beruk Yihonal, acting manager at Chargeur, forming a labour union does not present any challenges. He disclosed a five-member workers' council had already been around, acting as an intermediary between the workforce and management.

"It`s a step in the right direction, but the notice was given abruptly," said Beruk. "It would have been better to extend the formation period."

The labour force at ITL Ethiopia Labels Manufacturing, numbering 46, has also organised itself into a union. The company started in Hawassa in 2018.

The employees of Tal Apparel, based in Hong Kong and which began operating in the park in 2017, are establishing a union. Elfnesh Tadele is one of the workers and has been a member of the company's workers' council for three of the four years she has been employed there.

"We've been asking for a union to be set up for years," she says.

She sees a union better positioned than a council for a bargain, which had little sway with employers.

"We'll be able to take our problems to the highest officials through the union," Elfinesh hopes.

PUBLISHED ON Sep 18,2021 [ VOL 22 , NO 1116]

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