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Chinese tannery in Ethiopia which pays employees less than $2 per day accused of Health&Safety issues

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By Dawit Endeshaw

Three months after a tragic incident caused a factory worker to lose both of her hands, Modjo Wereda Administration, Oromia Regional State expressed its concern over violation of the rights of factory workers who work at 30 factories located in and around the town.

The tragic accident, which brought uproar by the time, occurred at a leather factory owned by Chinese investors called Friendship Tannery PLC.

Months after the incident similar accidents have continued at the factory, according to wereda officials and employees of the factory.

Over the past two months, six people were said to have suffered from physical injuries –most of them were caused by lack of safety precautions.

The Reporter paid a visit to the factory on March 29, 2017. The employees expressed their frustration over the company’s management.

Established five years ago, Friendship employs close to 1,500 workers. It was established on four hectares plot in the outskirt of Modjo.

According to the workers who spoke with The Reporter, the only evidence they have for being employees of the factory is an identification card (ID) that has been provided by the company.

Ethiopia’s labor law states that contract of employment is to be made in writing, which includes information such as the name and address of the employer; the name, age, address and work card number and the signature of the contracting parties.

If the contract of employment is not made in writing, the employer shall, within 15 days from the conclusion of the contract, give the worker a written and signed statement containing the above requirements.

“They gave us only an ID,” a young man who said he is in his early 20s told The Reporter. He joined the factory three month ago after dropping out of grade eight.

His work mate, who also dropped out of school, joined the factory at an early age of 17. He said that he works with chemicals and animal hides.

“The fact that we don’t have a document, which indicates our employment status, enables the management to fire and hire whoever they want,” the young man said.

Contrary to the law of the land, particularly the labor proclamation, only 30 of them have a permanent employee contract while the rest have no formal contractual agreement.

Yet, the workers have no access to safety kits such as gloves, uniforms and shoes.

“I spend my days with chemicals that I don’t know of, but they give us gloves once in a while, the worker said. With regards to uniforms only few have and the uniforms are worn out.

The Reporter approached a group of five workers in the afternoon of March 29, 2017 during their lunch break.

All of them wore their usual clothes and shoes except one worker who wore a pair of shoes which was provide by the company. The company paid them less than two dollars (40 birr) per a day.

Still these workers have no documents regarding their salary status.

“It is really frustrating,” the same worker said. “We are required to enter into the factory 7:00 AM in the morning and leave at 6:00 PM.”

They have only a one hour break for lunch.

The Reporter observed that some of the workers are underage. Moreover, most of them have no causal work uniform.

“We ask them to provide an ID issued by the kebele which can prove that they are above 18,” a source close to the management said.

Even though they brought their kebele issued IDs The Reporter has learnt that some of them are not actually 18; rather they are below 18.

Most of the accidents usually happen on employees who work with machines, according to data obtained from the wereda Social and Labor Affairs Office.

The problem is that the company set a working scheme where the machine operators are paid based on the amount of hides they process, Dereje Tadesse, head of the wereda Social and Labor Affairs Office, said.

So this has become problematic because workers will be tempted to overwork in order to get more money. In return this is causing accidents.

As the result of such related violations of the rights of workers, the wereda administration had, at the beginning of this year, shut down the factory for one month. It was done to exert pressure on the management of the factory to fix the problems that persist.

However, the wereda officials admit that the problem still exists and the factory is doing little to improve the working conditions.

“We are doing our best to put pressure on them,” Kasim Mohammed, deputy head of the office, told The Reporter.

This case was also brought the attention of federal government. The Confederation of Ethiopian Trade Unions (CETU) is following the case closely.

The manager of Friendship Wei declined to comment on the issue after repeated efforts made by The Reporter.

“We gave them a one month ultimatum to fix the problem,” Muluneh Dessalegne, Head of Industrial Relation of CETU told The Reporter. However I don’t think they manage to fix them.

This is just an anecdotal example of what is happening in Modjo.

From the 30 factories, which hire around 7,000 people, only 11 have trade unions. From the total number of employees, 2390 are permanent employees.

There is a resistance from the factory owners of not allowing workers to establish trade unions.

Article 31 of Ethiopian Constitution grants every citizen the right to organize themselves into association for any cause or purpose.

However, most of the time, owners face little punishment in case of violation of the right of their workers.

According to Ethiopia’s labor proclamation, an employer faces a maximum punishment of a fine of 1,200 birr in case of offenses related with contract termination, causing workers to work beyond the maximum working hours and not taking all the necessary occupational safety and health measures.

This gives the employers the upper hand to do whatever they want and face little consequence, Kasim said.

For us, as a government entity, we try to mediate instead of enforcing or putting pressure, Dereje said.

Just last week the Confederation of Ethiopian Trade Unions have disclosed that close to 90 organizations including high-end private owned hotels in Addis Ababa, construction companies, textile factories were said to be unwilling to allow their workers to practice their constitutional right of forming their own trade unions.

“We will take the case to Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs,” Muluneh said. “And we will keep on adding pressure.”

Source: Ethiopian Reporter