The view from the factory floor

Industrialization was sought as a panacea to ethnic conflicts, resource crisis, and unemployment. But what prospects does it actually offer to Ethiopian youth?

Children collecting water from a pump provided by the factory. Image credit Manjusha Nair.

Abraham and Worku wore T-shirts and jeans soiled from laundering cloth in chemical dye solutions in the denim factory. They were 19 and 21 years old, studied until grade ten and nine, and were working towards part-time diplomas in accounting at Rift Valley University in Bishoftu. When I interviewed them in October 2018, they had been in the factory for six months as laundry workers, where, along with ten men and four women of similar ages, their job was to dye denim cloth in shades of blue and black. They were paid 900 to 1100 birr (25 to 30 USD) per month, which covered only their rent and part of their expenses on food, cellphone, and student fees. For the rest, they relied on their family. But they were happy: they were young, ate injera and shiro at the factory canteen, chatted with fellow workers while taking the free shuttle to and from the factory to the town where they lived with friends. A few of them had small family plots of teff and barley, which their little brothers and sisters harvested, or they helped by doing night shift at the factory. They liked that they had jobs, salary, and urban prospects. Their only complaint was that they were not given milk yet, a supposed antidote to the toxicity of chemicals they dealt with every day.

The 1979 Nobel Prize winning economist from the Caribbean, Sir Arthur Lewis, provided a model of economic development for poor countries that became influential for policy makers in African postcolonial nations: Use the labor from the subsistence economy in the capitalist sector without raising wages or creating skills, reinvest the earnings in further capital accumulation until all of the subsistence sector is absorbed in the capitalist sector and the economy takes off in its path to modernization.

A machine operator inside the factory. Image credit Manjusha Nair.

These and other developmental models, with their teleological predictions, have failed to take-off but have considerable purchase in Ethiopia, where the perception of an era of arrested development due to the prior command economy of Mengistu Haile Mariam (the Derg regime) is deemed responsible for trapping the country in the eternal backwardness of a rain-dependent subsistence economy, and the misery of famine and poverty. Industrial modernization has become a catch-all phrase for the policies of later governments, led by Meles Zenawi, the Marxist rebel from Tigray turned developmental reformer, and now Abiy Ahmed, who envisions a huge economic transformation through integrating Ethiopia into the global market.

Abraham and Worku worked in a denim manufacturing factory in the Keta industrial zone in Bishoftu municipality. The factory, owned by an Indian business group, was one among the many Chinese, Indian, Turkish textile, and garment units that moved to Ethiopia, towing their machines and products through the new expressways and train lines constructed with Chinese financial and technical help. Young Chinese entrepreneurs hung out with the locals in the lobby of the Ethiopian Investment Commission, tried injera, listening to music in “traditional” restaurants, and drinking coffee pressed from complicated Italian machines. They were lured by the young, 50 million-strong workforce ready to work at wages five times cheaper than in China, a duty-free export market enabled by the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) partnership with the US, and state subsidies.

Workers rip jeans to a given pattern. Image credit Manjusha Nair.

Students with whom I talked at the Ethiopian Civil Service University, my taxi driver Ararsu, and every other person, accused the foreigners, especially the Chinese, of “looting” the economy—an attempt to colonize a nation that has never been colonized. Nevertheless, nobody questioned the path of industrialization and economic growth for the transformation of Ethiopia out of a “backwardness” of deprivation, and a rurality that was in urgent need of repair. In Bishoftu municipality, 39 miles away from Addis Ababa (distance reduced due to the new Addis-Adama expressway built with Chinese assistance) there were 102 functioning industries manufacturing textiles, instant noodles, woodwork, and metal products. The young municipal administration employee whom I interviewed passionately stated that without these industries, “there would be crisis in our country.” Without doubt, industrialization was sought as a panacea to ethnic conflicts, resource crisis, and unemployment.

What prospects did it offer to the youth—more than half of Ethiopian population and the demographic advantage of the country—in the global market? Against the stories of deprivation and exploitation characterizing the textile and garment sector that I read elsewhere, there were evidences of better labor rights in this factory. One reason could be that the Ethiopian government has ratified all eight fundamental conventions of the International Labor Organization to protect labor standards. In the highly automated denim unit, 580 young, agile Ethiopian women and men, dressed in company T- shirts, denim jeans and face masks, operated the machines. They were supervised by equally young Ethiopian men and women, fresh graduates from textile engineering schools. All employees were recruited through job advertisements and there were written contracts. Their monthly salaries (not daily wages) were deposited in the Ethiopian Development Bank, and the factory owners contributed seven percent to the employee pension fund. The management had a collective agreement with the workers’ union, which was formed in 2018, after a prolonged discussion with the workers’ representatives. The agreement was printed in English, Amharic, and Oromia languages, and an English copy was emailed to me, upon request. The benefits included giving time off to employees to attend funerals.

Workers gather at the factory grounds. Image credit Manjusha Nair.

Yet, factory work was not preparing the workers for a stable future. The workers often left jobs, getting tired of the work rhythm and meager earnings. They did not learn many skills in their short stint at the factories. There were no state-mandated minimum wages and the workers’ pay barely covered their living expenses. They depended on their farm income and families to survive. There was no guarantee of employment, and eventually there was the chance of the textile and garment sector shutting down if the AGOA fell through, or yet another site for cheap production was identified, as has happened in other places. These youths were in unsustainable futures, and they were not experiencing the social transformations from the time of pastoral temporality to factory rhythms. One of the supervisors, Lydia, lamented about the plight of her fellow Ethiopians: “The industry is good, but they [workers] have no future. They study up to grade ten, come here and work, get machine injury and leave. Or they wait until farming season and then leave.”

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