Until the war began in Tigray in November 2020, Ethiopia was a favorite investment destination. It has experienced strong economic growth over the past decade.
The country gave foreign investors preferential access to American and European markets, favorable customs and tax policies, and relative political stability. Labor costs are also low – almost half of what they are in China.
The Ethiopian government has invested US $ 1 billion annually in industrial parks since 2010-almost one-third of total net aid from abroad.
Investors from around the world, including China, India, the US and South Korea, have started industrial production in these parks, creating job opportunities for thousands of citizens.
And most of them are women who have entered the labor force like never before. Prior to the COVID-19 crisis in 2020, companies in new industrial parks in Ethiopia employed approximately 86,000 workers-approximately 80% of whom were women. They were hired for lightweight manufacturing, making products such as shoes, fabrics and garments. Employers saw women as enthusiastic and disciplined.
The entry of women into the Ethiopian work force provided a rare opportunity to study the impact of jobs on women’s empowerment, especially political participation.
A study I conducted with colleagues yielded unexpected results with implications for understanding political agency in a non-democratic and evolving context.
Work and political activity
Research in democratic and developed countries shows a strong correlation between increased participation of women workers and women’s political participation.
Wage labor tends to strengthen the status of women. This influences their effectiveness in seizing power in other spheres of society, including politics. It also increases the number of women with professional experience and resources to mount credible campaigns and challenge voter negative attitudes towards women.
We want to know if this trend will be the same in a developing country but also an authoritarian one like Ethiopia.
The 2020 Human Development Report shows that gender inequality persists in Ethiopia, denying women the opportunity to participate in development projects. Much more needs to be done to increase the empowerment of women in the country.
Beginning in 2017, we collected data from 27 large factories producing shoes and garments in five industrial parks in Ethiopia. The companies agreed to randomly assign 1,498 women applicants to the two groups. One group of women was offered a job and a control group was not offered a job.
The unique design of this research made it possible to compare groups and define the impact of work. We asked the same group of women the same questions to measure different indicators of women’s empowerment. These questions are about economic decision -making (bargaining power), their influence on the number of children they will have, and their levels of political interest and participation.
The study followed participants between six, 12, 18 and 36 months after they applied for the job. We combined this with extensive qualitative data and telephone surveys conducted with women partners.
Our study investigated whether women’s status as workers became more politically interested-and more likely to participate in politics-than non-working women.
Contrary to expectations, our research found no evidence to suggest that job offers had any positive effect on political participation. We saw no impact of work on women’s bargaining power or gender equality standards. We have even seen a decrease in women’s participation in community meetings.
We see this as a result of the long working hours of female factory workers, poor working conditions and lack of labor rights. A gender division of labor in factories, and the underestimated and contemptuous attitudes of factory owners and supervisors towards women, further limit their political agency.
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In our interviews, the women said they did not have time to attend political meetings. Often they have to work long hours to reach production targets. There is no minimum wage and attendance bonuses are lost on the first day of absence.
Almost all women experienced abusive behavior from their supervisors. This includes shouting, insulting or being subjected to physical force to make them work faster or as punishment for mistakes.
The opportunity to unionize is almost nonexistent. Of the 27 companies in our study, only two had a labor union. The investors and factory owners we interviewed expressed their opposition to such unions.
Government officials and national trade union representatives told us that labor laws were not enforced for fear of investors leaving the country. Most factories are in practice being exempted from basic labor regulations. Even if inspectors discover health and security violations, for example, they are unlikely to take these cases to court.
Our findings are consistent with studies of women’s political participation in other African autocracies, such as Rwanda and Uganda.
Income and employment status have less impact on women in authoritarian contexts than in advanced democracies. Having income and employment, especially if employment has no labor rights, does not give an individual the kind of power it can give in an advanced democracy.
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The Ethiopian government and the job-creating investors have a long way to go to offer Ethiopian women what the International Labor Organization calls decent work.
Our research shows that key actors who define working conditions in Ethiopian factories have little concern for the potential damage that poor working conditions can have on their reputations.
But recent developments may support a change. In 2021, Ethiopia’s selective access to American markets was terminated through the African Growth and Opportunity Act. This has been a huge blow to investors and the government. Investors left the country.
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Being more open to unionization can have benefits for industries. Better working conditions can improve the image of manufacturers among western consumers. The Confederation of Ethiopian Labor Unions told us in research interviews that the union would facilitate more peaceful industrial relations. It is already seeing development in industrial parks.
If this leads to better working conditions for women factory workers, the country could see positive changes in women’s political interests and participation.