Saturday, November 16, 2013

Clothing industry in Ethiopia, slavery or a great opportunity?

In the Ethiopian highlands, the fertile parts of Ethiopia, landholding size is around a hectare per household. Assuming an average household size of about 6 persons in rural areas, then this would suggest about 600 persons per square kilometer. Even if this number seems at the upper edge, it is undeniable that population pressure is huge, and agricultural productivity (agricultural output/person) is low. Though several opposing theories exist, one suggests that countries should heavily invest into the secondary sector, so that people move out of the rural areas to work in the emerging industries. Because less people are working on the field agricultural productivity would automatically improve.

Ethiopia is a country that is trying this strategy. Lately, even Swiss free newspaper were announcing that H&M would start producing low cost cloth in Ethiopia. Having seen horrible images from Bangladesh, where cloth production is just modern slavery, I am wondering if the industrialization strategy is a “winner’s curse” ? is Ethiopia becoming a new Bangladesh? Is it really slavery?
I recently found this movie on internet showing how shoes and shirts are produced in Ethiopia, by Chinese and Turkish. The movie is entitled modern slavery, a title I would like to challenge…

L'Ethiopie casse les prix - Escalave moderne par kersanti

In the movie, we see well-built factories with quite good working conditions. Nothing to compare to the overcrowded badly build factories in Bangladesh. Ok, we see some women who do not use the right protecting cloth when gluing shoes, yes it is bad, but “self-employed” smallholders producing onions also use chemicals without protection. It is bad, but the understanding of the importance of correct protecting material has not yet reached Ethiopia, and I would even believe the Chinese bosses who say why should I oblige them, they would not use it anyway.
Let’s now look at the benefit schemes a worker gets. The lady that is hired to fold the Aldi t-shirt is earning 50 cent an hour. So let me make some computation, if she works for 8 hours, she gets 4 dollars. Then she also gets a free meal, and a free service bus bringing her home (ILRI where I worked abolished the services bus). Ok, this is not a lot and ok she pays half of her wage to say in a small room without water and electricity. But looking at my former’s driver wife. She is running her own small burger place on a road side near to some condominiums. On good days she makes double than the girl who folds shirts in the factory, but she does not get a free meal, and 20% of her earnings goes into transportation, she had to invest money and bares risk. Also my cleaning lady was not earning much more per day than the girl folding Aldi shirts, but her days were shorter and she had many more benefits...

My former driver's wife running her burger place

So is it really modern slavery, or is cheap labor just the comparative advantage of Ethiopia to industrialize and move more and more people out of poverty? I understand, for us it is a moral question if it is fair that the Tommy Hilfiger shoes that we pay more than 200 usd are produced in Ethiopia only for 8 USD. But the clothing industry in Ethiopia is just paying local wages that by the way are more than double than in the commercial farming sector (a worker that picks the roses you buy in your supermarkets gets less than a dollar a day). And workers could walk out of the factories and go back to their rural homes, yet they stay, because there are no other jobs for uneducated people that pays as much as the clothing industry. Slavery starts there where people have no choice than working for low wages (for example because their passport has been taken away and can’t leave), I don’t think that is (yet) the case in Ethiopia. Ok these worker might have no choice because they can’t find any other job, but this applies to many many many other people in the developed world too. Lack of education and poverty makes them slaves.
I definitely feel that the emerging clothing industry is a great opportunity for Ethiopia to develop, to lift people out of poverty so that they are freer in future. Remember that the developed world did not get rich by preserving nature and human rights. But a critical eye should be kept on this industry to make sure that we are not getting a second Bangladesh…
Despite of all this, we should not look away from how things we eat and use are produced. Though, conditions are ok in local terms, it is a moral issue. Could working conditions not be improved in such a way that they contribute to a faster positive change for the Ethiopian society? For example by letting the industry invest in education and health care? In the end, it is you as a consumer who decides!

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