OPINION: Doing well by doing good? Ask Ethiopia’s garment workers

by Penelope Kyritsis and Scott Nova | Worker Rights Consortium
Tuesday, 16 April 2019 12:45 GMT

ARCHIVE PHOTO: A worker removes excess threads on a finished garment inside a textile factory in Ethiopia November 17, 2017. REUTERS/Tiksa Negeri

Image Caption and Rights Information

* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Unfortunately for the country’s garment workers, there is a yawning gap between the brands’ ethical pretentions and the workplace reality for the people sewing their clothes

Penelope Kyritsis is research associate at the Worker Rights ConsortiumScott Nova is the executive director of the Worker Rights Consortium. 

As global brands continue their relentless quest for cheaper places to make clothes, Ethiopia has emerged as the latest fast-fashion frontier. Several factors combined to make Ethiopia a coveted production locale, including low labor costs, preferential trade access to American and European markets, generous tax incentives from the Ethiopian government, and a large influx of foreign investment, primarily Chinese.

As brands like H&M and PVH flock to Ethiopia, they claim to be motivated by more than the prospect of greater profits. To hear them tell it, their arrival augurs social uplift for Ethiopia’s poor laboring population, captured succinctly in the mantra of corporate social responsibility: “doing well by doing good.”

PVH, which owns Tommy Hilfiger and Calvin Klein, is at the forefront of the drive to build Ethiopia’s garment sector and has made expansive claims of high ethical standards in its operations there. In a speech at the inauguration of the Hawassa Industrial Park, which PVH helped finance, the company’s head of global sourcing, Bill McRaith, pledged that PVH’s investment in Ethiopia “will show the world there is no conflict between companies doing well and companies doing right by the people, the community, and the environment they operate within.” Other brands, including H&M, claim that development goals, like women’s empowerment and job creation, helped drive their decision to move into Ethiopia

Unfortunately for the country’s garment workers, there is a yawning gap between the brands’ ethical pretentions and the workplace reality for the people sewing their clothes. The Worker Rights Consortium (WRC), an independent labor rights monitor based in Washington, DC, recently published a report documenting oppressive working conditions in Ethiopian garment factories that bear little resemblance to the brands’ vision of social uplift. While the WRC conducted interviews with workers in 2017, recent reports indicate that these conditions remain unchanged.

Workers interviewed by the WRC reported facing a raft of abuses: draconian wage deductions, with workers losing several days’ pay for such offenses as drinking water at their work stations; degrading verbal abuse from supervisors; pregnancy discrimination, with hiring managers at one factory manually probing the bellies of job applicants; and forced and unpaid overtime, among other rights violations. Every brand sourcing from Ethiopia has a code of conduct prohibiting such abuses, which they all claim to strictly enforce – an illustration of the distance between corporate rhetoric and shop-floor reality. 

The WRC’s investigation also reveals that Ethiopian factories are paying wages far lower than in other apparel-exporting countries. Bangladesh has long been notorious for the ultra-low wages in its garment industry – the minimum wage there is 46 cents an hour – but the wages workers in Ethiopia are getting to sew clothes for PVH and H&M makes Bangladesh look like Luxembourg. The WRC reviewed workers’ pay stubs at four factories producing for these and other Western brands and found wages as low as 12 cents an hour, with an average of 18 cents an hour. Unsurprisingly, wages were at the root of a recent strike by garment workers.

The moral defense typically offered for the low wages that characterize global garment production is that workers’ earnings, though low, are far better than the meager alternatives. In the Ethiopian garment sector, pay is so low that the argument doesn’t apply: research shows  that 77 percent of Ethiopian garment workers quit their jobs within a year to return to agricultural or informal employment, because “people who worked in agriculture or market selling earned about as much money as they could have at the factory, often with fewer hours and better conditions.”

Incredibly, a number of brands sourcing from Ethiopia, including H&M and PVH, have publicly committed to paying a “living wage” to the workers in their global supply chains. It is a mystery how these brands reconcile their living wage promises with their decision to expand production in a country with no minimum wage and use suppliers who pay 18 cents an hour. There is no mystery, on the other hand, about how wages this low benefit the brands’ bottom line.

If consumers want to know where human rights truly ranked among brands’ considerations when entering Ethiopia, the timing is instructive. Ethiopians have seen a partial opening over the last year in the country’s authoritarian political climate, but in 2016 and 2017, when brands like PVH and H&M were accelerating their Ethiopia expansion, human rights organizations were decrying lethal violence against peaceful protestors, mass arrests of journalists and the government’s iron grip: Human Rights Watch declared: “Ethiopians live in fear.” Meanwhile, PVH was praising the Ethiopian regime: in his June 2017 speech at the Hawassa Park, McRaith called it “an active and visionary government” and dubbed Ethiopia a “North Star” for responsible corporate investors.

Better conditions in Ethiopia’s growing garment industry will depend on organizing by garment workers and pressure on Western brands to square their ethical pretensions with the wages and conditions in their supply chains.

In response to the op-ed, H&M said it was working with the International Labour Organization (ILO) to strengthen industrial relations in the textile industry in Ethiopia with the goal of making it possible for workers and employers to negotiate rights and obligations collectively and to resolve conflicts peacefully and in good faith through established processes.

It said its presence in Ethiopia was contributing to the country’s economic growth and had helped to create around 18,000 jobs since 2013. The company said it had no intention to move production capacity from other markets to Ethiopia in a “race to the bottom”.

The company said it was taking seriously any allegations of violations of labour standards and would continue to follow up with suppliers and implement programs addressing working conditions and workers’ rights. H&M said it was part of an ILO study aiming at giving the government a basis for future wage adjustments – a research which was under review with the ILO and others. 

PVH told the Thomson Reuters Foundation that while it took the allegations raised in the WRC report very seriously, some of the interviews were two years old and the park and its practices had evolved since then. It said it would conduct an immediate and thorough investigation and take appropriate action if any violations are found.

The company said it had engaged the government on adopting a national minimum wage and had worked to ensure building safety in the industrial park, which was housing over 22,000 workers -  jobs that the company said would not had otherwise existed, and which provided opportunities for the residents in the surrounding area and benefited the local economy.

PVH said it had a goal of paying all workers no less than a living wage and that the wages it paid exceed those offered by other employers, including agribusinesses and the government.