Amid political recalibrations: Strike wave hits Ethiopia

by Samuel Andreas Admasie

While the political protests that have gripped Ethiopia in recent years and the recalibrations within the ruling front that they have generated have been the subject of extensive attention, another aspect of ongoing social turbulence has been almost entirely neglected: the wave of labor unrest apparent since the autumn of 2017. No less than a dozen strikes have been recorded, in addition to a number of other signs of growing restiveness among wage workers. This commentary seeks to shed light on the ongoing strike wave and the social conditions that underpin it. They include real wages that have dropped to a historical record low, and are reinforced by attempts to further erode labor rights.

Ethiopia—whose political‐economic model was only recently the subject of much envious attention, and to a certain extent remains so—appears, simultaneously, to have arrived at multilayered crossroads. While much focus has been centered on the political convulsions and recalibrations currently taking place—a popular wave of protests, ongoing with various intensity since 2014, has come to lead to a series of personnel and policy changes in the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF)—expressions of economic contradictions and classed antagonisms have remained largely unexplored. An important aspect of such contradictions and antagonisms is the reemergence of serious unrest within the waged labor force.

A strike wave of a magnitude which has no parallel since that which occurred around the time of the 1974 revolution is currently gripping Ethiopia’s waged economy. In the current Ethiopian calendric year—which began in September 2017—at least a dozen strikes have occurred in the country. To appreciate the scale of events, consider these different examples as follows:

On the Dutch‐owned Sher Ethiopia horticulture farm, 4,000 workers went on strike in late September, hurling stones at windows and destroying farm property (Tadesse, 2017a). In October, 1,200 workers at the French‐owned Castel winery laid down their tools and expelled management from the premises. With guards enforcing the lockout of the managers, an effective occupation of the site commenced. The strike only ended after the company conceded to substantial wage increases—up to 70% (Tadesse, 2017b). Then, on April 17, air traffic controllers of the Ethiopian Civil Aviation Authority protesting poor wages walked off the job, halting all traffic to and from Addis Ababa’s Bole International Airport (Abera, 2018). The following month social contagion was on vivid display as workers from across the factories of Bole Lemi Industrial Park—a showpiece of Ethiopian manufacturing developmental efforts—staged a 5‐day strike demanding better pay, job safety, and working conditions (Hailemariam, 2018).

In addition to these examples, textile factory workers, bottling plant workers, garbage collectors, and shoe factory workers in other venues and parks have been among those staging wage‐related strikes in the past few months. Many more have engaged employers in prolonged strife and litigation over union‐busting measures, real wage losses, and outright repression of organized labor. Not even luxury hotels in the capital—such as Sheraton and Hilton—have been spared such conflict.

This all makes for the greatest wave of labor unrest in Ethiopia since the mid‐1970s.

Other incidents point to the increasing volatility of Ethiopian industrial relations. The torching and destruction of dozens of foreign‐owned factories and plantations across the country since 2016 has generally been attributed to the wave of popular protests (Maasho, 2016a, 2016b), yet it is difficult to understand the targeted violence outside of the process of proletarianization that these investments have generated and the conditions of labor prevalent on them. On May 16, moreover, Nigerian cement producing firm Dangote’s country manager and two colleagues were ambushed and killed while driving from the factory. While the perpetrators or the motive of the attack have not been conclusively established, it ought to be pointed out that it came after a series of conflicts between Dangote’s management and employees of the outsourced labor suppliers and in the wake of a meeting with truck drivers—some of whom had physically attacked another Dangote manager only 6 months earlier—whose monthly pay had recently been drastically lowered (Bekele, 2018).

None of this is to say that the nonindustrial aspects and drivers—related, for example, to ethnicity, democratic rights, and representation—of the contemporary protest movement should in any way be played down. Not only has the political unrest gripping the country since 2016 produced important outcomes of its own, but the general crisis has also severely weakened—if only temporarily—the state’s capacity of displacing and/or repressing labor militancy. The partial incapacitation of the state to carry out those tasks has thus availed an important element of opportunity to workers whose dissatisfaction with prevailing conditions was already maturing. However, no single factor has produced those grievances in the first place. To derive what is happening in the industrial sphere from the political conjuncture alone would be a gross oversimplification. The root cause for the upshot in labor unrest must be found in the conditions of labor. To substantiate this requires somewhat of a detour into the broader political‐economic conjuncture in general, and that affecting labor in particular, the outlines, only, of which can be described in what follows.

The strike wave comes at a time where Ethiopian real wages have hit a historic low. In 2010, real wages in the manufacturing sector had dropped to half of their 1975 level (Admasie, 2018), and real wages have, since then, been the subject of additional pressure from the managed slide and two sharp devaluations of the exchange rate of the Ethiopian Birr, which have combined with high price inflation and stagnant nominal wages. Monthly wages in the Ethiopian manufacturing sector are often as low as 20 USD (Barrie, 2018).

None of this is, of course, by accident, but by design. It has been quite some time since the EPRDF’s invocation of “revolutionary democracy,” “inward orientation,” and rhetorical neoliberalism‐bashing started ringing utterly hollow. Since the early 2000s, if not before, the EPRDF has in actuality pursued a manufacturing strategy based on foreign direct investment (FDI) financing and export orientation (FDRE, 2001; FDRE Ministry of Industry, 2013). This strategy has been premised on one major competitive advantage: the availability of cheap labor. Consequently—and as stated in official plans—the state has taken on the task of monitoring real wage movement and assuring that no substantial upward movement occurs (MoFED, 2016). A number of measures have been deployed to this end, including a downward sliding exchange rate of the Birr reinforced by recurrent devaluations: ensuring that nominal wage improvement does not outpace price increases.

The strategy has been successful in so far as to attract the attention of foreign capital, eager to profit from historically cheap labor. A plethora of large foreign enterprises have already commenced production or outsourced it to suppliers in Ethiopia, and many more are lining up to take advantage of the lucrative opportunities. This has created a dubious narrative of an “African lion,” or “Africa’s China” (Cowen, 2018; Kushkush, 2015). It is dubious because in many regards, including in terms of output and export targets, the strategy has not been successful. The manufacturing sector remains a contributor of only around 5% of Ethiopian GDP and around 15% of total export value (Addis Fortune, 2018; Tsegaye, 2018). In other regards, the long‐term viability of the debt‐fueled public investment‐reliant model remains to be seen.

When signs of stagnation have appeared, additional measures to make labor cheap and malleable have been reinforced. In October 2017, a harsh revised labor bill was tabled to the Council of Ministers. The bill can only be described as a frontal assault of what remains of the position of Ethiopian labor, and it makes a travesty of labor rights. Among other things, it proposes a doubling of the period of probation, reduction of annual leave days, and less mandatory compensation for workplace accidents. Even worse, it proscribes immediate dismissal for workers who are absent for a single day without medical certification, or who either report late for work for only 2 days in a month or 5 days per 6‐month period (Endeshaw, 2017a, 2017b). The bill was so blatantly anti‐labor that even the Confederation of Ethiopian Trade Unions (CETU)—the thoroughly domesticated official structure of labor—found it too offensive to warrant continued inaction. In October, CETU issued a warning that, should the bill not be amended, a general strike is to be called (Addis Fortune, 2017). This is the first open invocation of the strike weapon of a country‐wide confederation since 1975.

More recently, in June 2018, the EPRDF announced its intention to embark on a new round of privatizations (EPRDF, 2018). Sectors in which public assets are to be sold off include railways, industrial infrastructure, manufacturing, commercial farming, services, and, partially, airlines, telecom and energy. Because of the scale of the sale, this appears likely to mean both the end of EPRDF’s ballyhooed “developmental state” model, and a revival of the liberalization programme that wreaked havoc—in terms of wage losses, mass retrenchments, and hollowed labor rights—on Ethiopian workers in the 1990s. In that sense, it is likely to lead to further erosions of the position of labor.

Largely, probably, the decision to embark on a new round of reforms has been taken in response to a crippling foreign‐exchange shortage which is approaching catastrophic proportions. It has been several years since exports could cover even a fifth of import costs, and over the past 3 years export growth has ground to a halt altogether (IMF, 2018). As a result, foreign‐currency denominated debt has predictably piled up rapidly. In the weeks leading up to the announced sale of prized assets, both the World Bank and China’s premier export and credit insurance firm lent in with warnings that their patience was coming to an end (Aglionby, 2018; Anberbir, 2018). However, as much as the EPRDF’s timing in announcing this last, sharp rightward turn may have been forced by circumstances outside of its immediate control, the trajectory is not very novel: the cheap labor‐based, outward‐oriented, FDI‐financed, and manufacturing‐centered growth strategy is established policy.

All in all, it is not very surprising that this particular moment would produce a groundswell in industrial contention. While further privatizations and the draft labor bill spell bad news for Ethiopia’s growing ranks of wage workers, there are reasons for more optimistic assessments of opportunities too. Ethiopian wage workers have a long history of militancy, and rich experiences from past struggles to fall back upon. Ever since the strikes of the railway workers of the Franco‐Ethiopian Railway Company of the 1940s; through the struggle to acquire legal recognition of the late 1950s and early 1960s; the country‐wide strike waves of the 1960s and early 1970s; the industrial‐political insurgency raging in workplaces through the mid‐1970s; the recurrence of widespread unrest in the late 1980s and early 1990s; and the challenge posed by organized labor to the freshly installed EPRDF’s adoption of structural adjustment programmes in the 1990s, Ethiopian labor has repeatedly displayed its resilient ability to rebuild structures, regroup, and wage determined struggle against overwhelmingly powerful interests pitted against it. Past struggles have reaped substantial rewards, including strings of victorious strikes resulting in the legal recognition of workers’ organizations; improvements in wages, labor rights, and working conditions; and a country‐wide strike‐fueled wage‐hike that lasted from the early 1960s through the mid‐1970s. Meanwhile, Ethiopian labor has resisted and endured open state hostility, the continuous deployment of union‐busting measures and harassment, periods of outright illegality, phases of open and deadly repression, and it has organized successful and less successful general strikes.

Whether or not state officials and corporate profiteers have given this a thought, it is this social force, with all the potential it has showcased in the past, reinforced by growing numbers, and pushed to the material limits of existence—even the World Bank (2015) has admitted that in Ethiopia wages can probably not fall any further without rendering workers incapable of meeting “minimum nutritional requirements”—that they have now taken on. Something—be it the growing restlessness and militancy of Ethiopian workers, or the renewed determination to break the position of labor—will have to give.

Should the government decide to pull the outrageous labor bill it has tabled, it would mark the greatest symbolic victory of Ethiopian labor since the March 1974 general strike, removing some of the most immediate pressure on labor while demonstrating how further achievements could stem from more assertive strategies. Should the state and capital, on the other hand, persevere in their assault on the position of labor, there is no reason to assume that unrest is going away anytime soon. History has demonstrated how strike waves create their own internal logic arching forward (Admasie, 2018).

It is obviously too soon to tell how this new phase of combative labor and industrial unrest will be resolved. In Ethiopia, similar processes have been halted and reversed a number of times in the past, but they have also led to significant victories and advances. What is certain is that Ethiopian workers have reentered the fray, and their continued presence should at least be a likely premise for any calculation. Workers have quite apparently redeveloped capacities to act autonomously, coherently, and militantly. A warning has been sounded: those profiteering on contemporary record‐low wages and poor conditions of Ethiopian labor ought to take notice.

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