A growing number of Ethiopian garment workers are infected by the coronavirus. The Textile Federation assists factories with preventing a further spread of the virus while it fights for the rights of workers who are suffering from economic hardship due to the pandemic.
More than three hundred workers at seven different textile factories across Ethiopia have been infected by the coronavirus in the last two weeks, according to the Industrial Federation of Textile Leather Garment Workers Trade Union (IFTLGWTU). More than 230 garment workers have been infected at the Bole Lemi Industrial Park in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa where eleven garment factories are located with a total of 16,371 workers. Another 150 workers have been infected at three other factories across the country.
“Some of my colleagues at different branches have been taken to a quarantine centre”, the 19-year-old Amarech Tadewos tells, who works at a textile factory in the southern city Hawassa. The female tailor is scared to get infected as well. “It’s impossible to keep sufficient physical distance while we line up with thousands of workers at the entrance of the industrial park each morning”, Tadewos explains. During their work, the employees also have to share several tools, like metal scissors, and have to touch the same clocking machine to clock in and out. “This situation is very scary”, Tadewos believes.
The Textile Federation has been carrying out COVID-19 awareness campaigns aimed at its members in garment and textile factories. With financial support of Mondiaal FNV, the union distributed brochures and postures with information on how to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
“Most factories try to do their best to protect their workers”, Birhanu Mekonin, Project Coordinator at the Wage Indicator Foundation tells. Mondiaal FNV supports The Wage Indicator to collect and publish data on a weekly basis on how garment factories respond to COVID-19. “Many factories screen their workers’ body temperature at the gate every morning. They also provide gloves, masks and sanitizers but often there is a shortage due to the large number of workers in each factory. Employers provide, for example, disposable masks that are meant to serve for one week, but workers have to wear them for three weeks due to a shortage”, Mekonin explains.
Social distancing is also very challenging due to the large number of workers, the Project Coordinator adds. Even though masks are mandatory and regular temperature check-ups are happening throughout the day, employees dine and take public transportation en masse. Many garment companies are operating in their normal way without cutting staff or working in shifts.
The virus stricken Ethiopian garment industry – that employs around 300,000 workers – also deals with big financial problems as the export of garment plummeted due to a low demand from European countries and the USA because of the corona crisis. Several factories have stopped paying certain incentives to be able to cope with these economic challenges. “I no longer receive a target bonus. As a result, I now only earn 1,150 Ethiopian Birr (27 euro) per month”, 19-year-old tailor Tadewos tells.
At the same time, prices are sharply rising, due to social unrest, road closures and an economic crisis, linked to the corona crisis. Tadewos: “A kilo of onions that used to be sold for 10 Ethiopian Birr (24 eurocent) is now being sold for 40 Birr (94 eurocent). A kilo of garlic that used to be sold for 60 Ethiopian Birr (1.40 euro) is now being sold for 120 Birr (2.80 euro). As a result, I eat less and I’m really struggling to survive”, the female tailor tells.
“Salaries in the Ethiopian garment industry were already inadequate, prior to this corona crisis”, Project Coordinator Mekonin states. “Garment workers in Addis Ababa, for example, were receiving less than 2,000 Ethiopian Birr (47 euro) per month while the cost of living in the capital is beyond 4,000 Ethiopian Birr (93 euro). This situation has only worsened since the cancellation of certain allowances and the rise of prices due to this corona crisis”, the Project Coordinator adds.
I am very worried that I will also lose my job soon
The Ethiopian textile federation – which has 54,000 members - tries to do all it can to support workers during these challenging times. Two months ago, three factories stopped with paying transport costs. “We negotiated with the management and convinced them to start paying these transport allowances again”, Angesom Yohannes, the president of the federation tells.
“We realize that the cost of living has nearly doubled but unfortunately we don’t have room to currently discuss a salary rise. So we do all our best to make sure that workers don’t lose what they are currently having”, Mr. Angesom states. The union also convinced some factories to double the transport allowances to cover the rising transport costs.
The president of the textile federation is worried about the future. Ethiopia records now over 42,000 COVID-19 infections and 692 deaths. In April, the Ethiopian government declared a State of Emergency, which prohibits companies to lay off workers. “Our fear is that when this State of Emergency will end, many workers might lose their job as the production of garment has sharply decreased”, Mr. Angesom tells.
Also 19-year-old Senait Alemu is scared to lose her job. She worked as a cutter at a garment factory – with around 5,000 employees - in Addis Ababa. Three months ago, production completely stopped and the young tailor is at home since then. Before corona, Alemu earned 1200 Ethiopian Birr (28 euro) per month, but since her transportation allowance, food allowance, target and attendance bonuses have been deducted, she now only receives 650 Ethiopian Birr (15 euro) per month. “My boss already laid off so many people before the State of Emergency was declared”, Alemu tells. “I’m very worried that I will also lose my job soon.”
Text: Andrea Dijkstra