Cablegate: Ethiopia: Unions and Unionization an Evolving Phenomenon


DE RUEHDS #0886/01 0921300
P 011300Z APR 08





E.O. 12958: N/A


1. Ethiopia's unions are small institutions experiencing
difficulties in the context of a growing private sector. Although
both constitutional and labor laws recognize and protect worker
rights, the economy's formal sector is small, and efforts to
organize workers in-country are challenging. Employer resistance and
limited labor law enforcement has adversely impacted unionization.
These issues, together with workers' limited educational and
vocational capacities and lack of awareness of their workplace
rights, limit the operating environment for unions. NGOs, foreign
donors, government of Ethiopia (GoE) ministerial interlocutors,
unions, and some employers are beginning to collaborate on
vocational training efforts and the protection of worker rights.
End summary.

Context for Organizing Labor

2. The Constitution recognizes a worker's right to form and join a
trade union. Labor Proclamation 377/2003 serves as the basis for
most current labor legislation protecting worker rights. Roughly
300,000 workers or about 1% of Ethiopia's workforce are union
members. Unions are found largely in parastatals, sizeable
enterprises, and export agricultural plantations. 91% of
working-age Ethiopians are self- employed, mostly on small family
farms, further contributing to low union penetration.

Obstacles to Unionization

3. Employers frequently resist unionization, often severing
employment union activists and organizers. Many employers maintain
that union leaders are confrontational and that therefore unions are
detrimental to private sector growth. Likewise, many Ethiopian
workers we have spoken with said they do not see unions as effective
advocates for issues of safety, health, and freedom from

4. Workers have the legal right to strike, however, the process of
declaring a legal strike is complicated and lengthy. While the law
prohibits retribution against strikers, labor leaders highlight that
most workers are afraid to participate in labor actions due to high
unemployment and long delays in the hearing of labor cases. The
Confederation of Ethiopian Trade Unions (CETU) blames some of the
difficulties of union organizing and poor labor law implementation
on a general lack of awareness among both workers and employers.
The European Union (EU) recently funded intensive International
Labour Organization (ILO) training programs on new labor law
implementation for hundreds of people across four regions. MOLSA is
encouraging interdisciplinary efforts to boost labor-related course
offerings across the country.

5. GoE interference in union activities and limited enforcement of
worker rights creates additional deterrents to union membership and
activism. The 2007 International Trade Union Confederation report
on the violations of union rights stated that many trade union
leaders are regularly intimidated, removed from their posts and/or
forced to leave the country, while others have been detained without
trial. The GoE closely monitors CETU activities, and has replaced
the Ethiopian Teachers' Association (ETA) with a GoE-dominated

6. The GoE has failed to protect the legal rights of union activists
and organizers by insufficiently providing court resources to
promptly adjudicate cases. Union sources report that employers
frequently fire union activists and organizers, in contravention of
the labor law. Recently labor courts have required employers to
reinstate such workers; however, due to case backlogs in the courts,
lawsuits often take more than four years to adjudicate.

Government Unions Discouraged

7. Labor proclamation 377/2003 created political and legal space for
new unions to be established. However, Labor Proclamation 377/2003
specifically excludes teachers and civil servants, including judges,
prosecutors, and security service workers, from organizing or
joining unions. The Ethiopian government employed 500,000 workers
in 2007, constituting only 1.6% of the total workforce. The law
also prohibits strikes by public or private sector workers who
provide essential services, including air transport, urban bus
service and sanitation workers, electric power suppliers, gas
station, telecommunications, hospital and pharmacy personnel, and
firefighters. Such comprehensive exclusionary provisions further
reduce worker incentives to unionize. While half of the
non-agricultural workforce is employed in the service sector, the
numbers affected by the strike ban are currently unknown.
The Role of CETU

8. CETU is the national union federation. The unions and their
federations are funded by a 1% deduction of dues from workers
salaries. Of those dues, 60% funds the union's operational costs,
30% finances the applicable sector federation (Ethiopia has nine
sector federations) and 10% supports the CETU. CETU and the
applicable sector federations provide limited training for union
officials via donor support, and currently lack the resources to be
sufficiently effective. CETU built a meeting hall for a training
center, but is currently struggling to identify funding for dorm and
classroom construction.

Education and Productivity Low

9. It is difficult to organize workers and obtain employer
recognition when many workers are illiterate and/or lack adequate
vocational training to meet current workforce demands. CETU, GoE
agencies, employers and donors recognize that to increase
productivity and wages, Ethiopia must do more to match worker
training and educational exposure to market-driven, private sector
needs. The adaptation and customization of international industrial
standards will serve to increase the demands and rewards of
technical certifications. Such initiatives will strengthen worker
performance and enhance union development. In an effort to upgrade
union members' skills, CETU has recently entered into school
collaborations. Additionally, the Ministry of Labor and Social
Affairs (MOLSA) is working with the Ministry of Education (MoE) and
employers to revise the Technical, Industrial and Vocational
Education and Training (TIVET) curriculum which prepares students
for private sector employment.

Union Successes

10. Several recent union successes are worth highlighting. In 2007,
forty flower farms of 25,000 workers (total) recognized unions and
negotiated collective bargaining agreements (CBA). A 40,000 union
membership among coffee and tea plantation workers well brands those
industries in international mediums. Compensation, benefits, and
working conditions of unionized plantation employees with CBAs are
comparatively better than those of non-unionized, casual workers.
Labor experts estimate that more than 90% of unionized workers are
covered by CBAs.


11. Unions and union leadership are an evolving phenomenon. In the
current organizing climate, if union leaders ignore members'
workplace concerns, parallel unions emerge and compete for
membership. New union leaders tend to be younger, more responsive to
member concerns, and more educationally equipped than their elder
organizing mentors. While many workers are either unaware of labor
laws or feel pressured to ignore them, perceptions are beginning to
change. Although employer and GoE responses to unionization efforts
have been guarded, cautious, and at times menacing, a slow trend
toward union institution-building is emerging.


© Scoop Media

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