Economists have promoted low-wage textile industry as the best way for poor countries to build a manufacturing base. In East Africa, the promised trickle-down effects of foreign investment have not materialized. The dream of industrial growth comes at a high price.
A number of East African countries, including Ethiopia and Kenya, are attempting to follow that path. Images of industrial progress and of politicians visiting work-shops, with rows of workers hunched over textile manufacturing equipment suggest that the development that has long eluded the continent is not too far off.
The Ethiopian government sees itself competing with Bangladesh for a place in the global clothing supply chain. And Bangladesh isn’t a floor to build on—it’s a ceiling.
The Ethiopian Investment Commission markets the country’s wages as “1/7 of China and 1/2 of Bangladesh,” the lowest garment worker pay in the world. From these paltry wages, Ethiopian industry has grown from 11 percent of the country’s GDP in 2013 to 25 percent today. That growth is held up as a local success story. Applauding the country for “building Africa’s manufacturing strength,” the African Development Bank highlighted Ethiopia’s goal of generating $30 billion in exports from the textile and apparel sector between now and 2030.
All this development is sold on creating jobs that will reduce poverty. So how are Ethiopian workers faring?
Studies have shown that an Ethiopian garment worker needs about $146 a month to survive. Only 7.5 percent of garment workers make that much. Ethiopia’s garment sector has no statutory minimum wage; instead, the working minimum is tied to the lowest wages for government employees. As a report from NYU’s Center for Business and Human Rights notes, “The fact that government-paid floor sweepers earn so little doesn’t make $26 a fair base wage for sewing-machine operators employed by foreign manufacturers.” The Worker Rights Consortium found that in addition to being paid the lowest wages in the world (as low as 12 cents an hour), workers were facing the same abuses that plague sweatshops in Asian countries, including harassment, unsafe conditions, forced overtime, and pay deductions for lateness or missing work (on top of wages missed), “despite such practice being barred by international and domestic law, as well as applicable codes of conduct.”