Dispatch

The Dark Side of Ethiopia’s Export Boom

Workers report sexual coercion and poor conditions at the Hawassa Industrial Park.

Workers operate sewing machines in a garment factory at the Hawassa Industrial Park in southern Ethiopia.
Workers operate sewing machines in a garment factory at the Hawassa Industrial Park in southern Ethiopia.
Workers operate sewing machines in a garment factory at the Hawassa Industrial Park in southern Ethiopia on Oct. 1, 2019. EYERUSALEM JIREGNA/AFP via Getty Images
By , an award-winning Australian writer and author.

HAWASSA, Ethiopia—When Gelila moved from her village in southern Ethiopia to Hawassa, a city in the Great Rift Valley, three years ago at the age of 19, she had high hopes of a brighter future. Along with three friends, she moved to the city with aspirations of getting a job at Hawassa Industrial Park, the largest manufacturing hub in sub-Saharan Africa. As the only such facility on the continent solely dedicated to producing textiles and garments, it is a source of pride and joy for the Ethiopian government.

Gelila began work ironing shirts, helping the factory to produce 150,000 men’s shirts a month for major American brands.

The work is grueling, the working conditions difficult, and the pay negligible. She said she earns 750 birr ($14) a month for six days’ work per week.

HAWASSA, Ethiopia—When Gelila moved from her village in southern Ethiopia to Hawassa, a city in the Great Rift Valley, three years ago at the age of 19, she had high hopes of a brighter future. Along with three friends, she moved to the city with aspirations of getting a job at Hawassa Industrial Park, the largest manufacturing hub in sub-Saharan Africa. As the only such facility on the continent solely dedicated to producing textiles and garments, it is a source of pride and joy for the Ethiopian government.

Gelila began work ironing shirts, helping the factory to produce 150,000 men’s shirts a month for major American brands.

The work is grueling, the working conditions difficult, and the pay negligible. She said she earns 750 birr ($14) a month for six days’ work per week.

She was eventually promoted to line leader at the factory, but things took a turn when her supervisor approached her demanding sex. She refused. “When I refused, the supervisor took another girl and changed [my] position; I was demoted back to iron worker,” Gelila said. (Representatives of the factory did not respond to questions sent by Foreign Policy.)

“I know so many stories of supervisors approaching women and telling them they can be promoted to different departments that have better money and conditions if they have sex with them,” she said. “Another supervisor asked me to spend the night together. I refused.”

Gelila’s story, however, is not uncommon.

Eight female garment workers in Hawassa who spoke to Foreign Policy—none of whom would use their real names for fear of retaliation—described a clear pattern: Sometimes to get a job at a factory, women are expected to have sex with a manager, and to keep the job or get a promotion, sex is also part of the deal.

 


Women walk in the Hawassa Industrial Park in Ethiopia.
Women walk in the Hawassa Industrial Park in Ethiopia.

Women walk in the Hawassa Industrial Park on Oct. 12, 2021. Michael Tewelde/Xinhua via Getty Images

In 2016, then-Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn inaugurated the $250 million, 300-hectare Hawassa Industrial Park that the government hoped to transform and expand the country’s economy. It was a bold social and economic experiment with big ambitions: to make Ethiopia the new link in the global supply chain for Western apparel.

When fully operational, it was expected that the park would employ 60,000 workers—largely poor rural women—and generate a total export value of $1 billion. The government promised to build 30 such industrial parks by 2025 that would together generate $30 billion in revenue.

At first glance, it seemed unlikely that Ethiopia could compete with countries like China, but the project attracted attention from global manufacturers that set up factories in the Chinese-built facility, including the Swedish brand H&M and America’s PVH Corp., one of the world’s largest apparel companies, which owns Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger. Suppliers from India, Sri Lanka, China, and other countries also opened factories at the facility. Its biggest draw was the rock-bottom wages, which are significantly lower than in such countries as Bangladesh and Cambodia. Indeed, Ethiopia has the lowest pay in the global garment supply chain. The monthly minimum wage in the garment industry in China is $326, compared to $182 in Cambodia and $95 in Bangladesh. In Ethiopia, it’s just $26.

While Ethiopia has no legally mandated minimum wage for the private sector, Kassahun Follo, president of the Confederation of Ethiopian Trade Unions, said his organization had long been advocating for its introduction. However, a specific figure is yet to be determined.

“Economic security should be a priority for government,” said Auret van Heerden, former head of the Fair Labor Association. “There’s always going to be someone cheaper than you. It’s a mistake to compete on labor standards, as it becomes a constant race to the bottom and the country doesn’t progress.”

“It’s a mistake to compete on labor standards, as it becomes a constant race to the bottom and the country doesn’t progress.”

Arkebe Oqubay, a senior minister and special advisor to Hailemariam, was the architect of Ethiopia’s plans to become a leading supply chain for Western apparel. In his 2015 book, Made in Africa: Industrial Policy in Ethiopia, he argued that the country has the attributes needed to become the manufacturing capital of Africa.

“Africa has a chance to exploit trade, financing, and investment opportunities with emerging countries. Increased labour costs in China and other emerging economies are also an opportunity,” he wrote.

Arkebe recognized that for Ethiopia to be successful it would require the right political and institutional framework, along with an understanding of market opportunities. Key elements to Ethiopia’s success—as demonstrated in his study on China, South Korea, and Singapore—would be tax breaks on exports and duty-free imports of capital goods and raw materials. But the country would also need political stability—something that perhaps was overlooked at the time.

The African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), a U.S. initiative in place since 2000, was a major reason why Hawassa Industrial Park was set up in the first place. AGOA enabled duty-free access to the U.S. market for almost all of Ethiopia’s exports, including ready-made garments. In 2020, Ethiopia’s exports to the United States under AGOA totaled $238 million, of which $219 million were from the garment industry.

For a country to qualify and remain eligible for AGOA, it must be working to improve its rule of law, human rights, and respect for labor standards. In late 2021, Mali, Guinea, and Ethiopia were terminated from AGOA over alleged human rights abuses and coups. On Nov. 2, 2021, the U.S. government announced it was deeply concerned “by the gross violations of internationally recognized human rights being perpetrated by the government of Ethiopia and other parties amid the widening conflict in northern Ethiopia.” The Biden administration gave Ethiopia two months to meet the eligibility criteria, but it failed to do so.

The suspension, which came into effect in January, sent shock waves through the industry. Two weeks after the announcement, PVH declared its intent to terminate its operations at Hawassa, citing the “speed and volatility of the escalating situation.” Some other companies have followed suit. It was a major blow to Ethiopia’s desire to become a serious player in the global apparel industry.


People work on the crowded floor of a textile factory at Hawassa Industrial Park in Ethiopia.
People work on the crowded floor of a textile factory at Hawassa Industrial Park in Ethiopia.

People work on the crowded floor of a textile factory at the Hawassa Industrial Park on Oct. 12, 2021. Michael Tewelde/Xinhua via Getty Images

Flying into Hawassa in July, the industrial park was unmistakable. Even though it’s a recent development, it feels as though the city centers around it. Buses upon buses arrive at the park to offload women for a grueling day at work. Some employees wear brands—perhaps knockoffs—such as Champion and Adidas. Security guards at the front ensure outsiders don’t make it in. Instead, I stood out the gates and imagined what a day’s work was like at one of the many factories. A tuk-tuk driver who takes women to and from work offered to set up interviews with some of the women.

One of them was Mulualem. When she arrived in Hawassa in 2019 to begin work at a factory as a production checker, it was the first time she’d visited the big city—she was from a village several hours away. Everything was new and exciting, and she had big plans for the future.

But some things came as a shock.

“We had a huge workload and worked long hours, and the hardest thing was the pay. Every worker in the park complained about the pay, because it’s not fair,” she said.

In time, she was promoted to line producer and her salary went up to 900 birr (just over $17) a month. But also new to Mulualem was the culture of sex and abuse of power.

“Some supervisors have sex with workers; they use their power to get the women to have sex with them,” she said. “The production manager would promise workers they would get a salary rise and promotion if they had sex. Many, many women are exposed to this, but they don’t speak out because they fear retaliation.”

“Sexual harassment is very common, and so is verbal and physical abuse,” one worker said. “The working conditions are painful for women.”

Many of the factories are run by East and South Asians, with women alleging it is foreigners who are committing various forms of abuse and harassment.

“Sexual harassment is very common, and so is verbal and physical abuse,” another worker said. “The working conditions are painful for women.”

The risk of sexual abuse and harassment, however, isn’t just confined to the factory; Everyone Foreign Policy spoke to mentioned the risk of rape outside the factory, especially in the late evenings, when night-time shifts ended.

“We are vulnerable outside the factory because we’re living alone, away from our families,” Mulualem said. “When women are sent home at 10 p.m., it’s difficult for us to get home, and many are raped, injured, and robbed. I know women who were raped.”

A few months ago, Mulualem lost her job due to “low demand of products due to the war,” with the factory firing hundreds of women.

“The factory promised our jobs back, but we’re not sure,” she said. “We’re facing an economic crisis. I live far away from my family, so I have nowhere to go.”


Workers check textiles at the Hawassa Industrial Park in Ethiopia.
Workers check textiles at the Hawassa Industrial Park in Ethiopia.

Workers check textiles at the Hawassa Industrial Park on Oct. 1, 2019. EYERUSALEM JIREGNA/AFP via Getty Images

While exact figures are hard to come by, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Hawassa Industrial Park had about 25,000 employees, 95 percent of whom were women. Since AGOA was suspended, about 6,000 women have lost their jobs, Follo said.

For women like 24-year-old Tigist, who lost her job at PVH last year, life has been difficult since.

“When the factory closed, all the workers were forced to flee. When I lost my job, I suffered a lot economically,” she said. “I had no money, and I have no parents to ask for support. I’m grateful that my landlord allowed me to stay for free so I could set up a small coffee store in front of the park with a friend, but the income isn’t constant.” While she said work in the factory was challenging—“there was too much work, and the payment wasn’t good”—it offered her a stable and secure income. She saw it as an important stepping stone not just in her career but in her desire to become an independent woman.

Christian Meyer leads the Oxford Martin Programme on the Future of Development and has extensively researched the garment industry in both his capacity at the university and as a former World Bank employee in Ethiopia.

Meyer said a job at Hawassa Industrial Park for a young rural Ethiopian woman can be a life-transforming opportunity, a step toward financial and personal autonomy.

While work in the factory was challenging—“there was too much work, and the payment wasn’t good”—it offered a stable and secure income.

“The AGOA suspension has had a direct impact on the livelihoods of young women from rural areas,” he said.

But just because AGOA has been suspended, Zakaria Sorgho, a research associate in international trade policy at Université Laval in Quebec, said it shouldn’t deter foreign investors, because the AGOA suspension “does not mean closed-border policy for Ethiopian exports,” and the country exports far more to Europe, Africa, and the Middle East.

With the future of Hawassa Industrial Park uncertain, one thing is clear: Workers want better conditions. Several workers told Foreign Policy they cannot afford menstrual products and are forced to use scrap material at the factory, which has given them infections. They also spoke of being refused leave, including one woman who was not allowed to go to her own father’s funeral; of being timed when they take a bathroom break and being suspended if they exceed the two-minute limit; of inadequate health care facilities; of unrealistic manufacturing targets; and of physical and verbal abuse, including one pregnant woman who was hit after making a mistake on the production line.

Paul Barrett, deputy director of New York University’s Stern Center for Business and Human Rights, said that supplier factory owners and Western brands that buy from them had a responsibility to “police the factory floor to ensure an end to plainly illegal sexual extortion.”

“Specific steps would include suppliers allowing—even encouraging—collective representation of female employees via unions or workers’ committees so that worker representatives could convey specific reports of abuse to management,” he said. “The global brand companies that buy low-cost garments from outsourced factories must use their economic leverage to monitor worker treatment and cut their ties to suppliers that refuse to take protection of female factory workers seriously.”

For Tigist, the coffee stand she has set up since losing her garment job provides her with an alternative income, though one that is unpredictable. She knew if she returned to her village, she’d have no job opportunities. Her shop is not her dream job, but it’s something she’s proud of.

“Things are not constant here; I don’t know every day if I’ll earn any money. Inflation is difficult. Work at the factory was constant,” she said, looking over the road at the industrial park. “I have suffered a lot.”

Sophie Cousins is an award-winning Australian writer and author. She was based In Nepal and India between 2015 and 2020 where she wrote about systems that exacerbate gender inequality and the impact this has on women's and girls' health. Twitter: @SophCousins

Join the Conversation

Commenting on this and other recent articles is just one benefit of a Foreign Policy subscription.

Already a subscriber? .

Join the Conversation

Join the conversation on this and other recent Foreign Policy articles when you subscribe now.

Not your account?

Join the Conversation

Please follow our comment guidelines, stay on topic, and be civil, courteous, and respectful of others’ beliefs.

You are commenting as .

More from Foreign Policy

U.S. President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping shake hands.
U.S. President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping shake hands.

Xi-Biden Meeting May Help End China’s Destructive Isolation

Beijing has become dangerously locked off from the world.

The exterior of the Russian Embassy in Stockholm, Sweden, is pictured on March 27, 2018.
The exterior of the Russian Embassy in Stockholm, Sweden, is pictured on March 27, 2018.

Sweden’s Espionage Scandal Raises Hard Questions on Spy Recruitment

Intelligence agencies debate whether foreign-born citizens are more targeted.

President Joe Biden gestures with India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi as the two leaders met in a hallway as Biden was going to a European Commission on the Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment on the sidelines of the G20 Summit in Nusa Dua, on the Indonesian island of Bali, on November 15, 2022.
President Joe Biden gestures with India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi as the two leaders met in a hallway as Biden was going to a European Commission on the Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment on the sidelines of the G20 Summit in Nusa Dua, on the Indonesian island of Bali, on November 15, 2022.

The G-20 Proved It’s Our World Government

At a time of global conflict, world powers showed that cooperation can actually work.

An illustration for Puck magazine from 1905 shows the battle against bureaucracy.
An illustration for Puck magazine from 1905 shows the battle against bureaucracy.

Only an Absolute Bureaucracy Can Save Us

The West will only restore its stability when civil servants are again devoted to the public rather than themselves.