The Interview: “Gov’t should open its doors for discussion, respond to demands of workers, reduce labor taxes” Kasahun Follo, President of CETU

Kasahun Follo, president of Confederations of Ethiopian Trade Unions (CETU): Photo:CETU/Facebook

By Molla Mitiku @MollaAyenew

Addis Abeba – Undeniably Ethiopia’s industrial landscape has changed over the past three decades. The expansion of several industries and manufacturing enterprises offered an employment opportunity to a significant number of people.  However, ways of handling workers and respecting their rights have remained bumpy that resulted in grievances. The workers in Tigray Regional State have already fallen under the worst situation due to the impact of the devastating war that lasted for two solid years. The employees working in various firms being hired with the help of agencies have also been subjected to labor exploitation; neither do they get fair payments for works they perform. Addis Standard’s Molla Mitiku has spoken with Kasahun Follo, President of the Confederation of Ethiopian Trade Unions (CETU) regarding these and other related issues. 

The Excerpt:

Addis Standard: Let’s start with your recent visit to Tigray, could you brief us on the composition of the team and the major purpose of the trip?

Kassahun: – The group consisted of 21 people. Four people, including me, from the office of CETU and the rest from the nine federations, two from unions, from Ethiopian Power Authority and Addis Abeba water and sewage. The purpose of the trip was to know the situation and whereabouts of the employees and companies therefore we have not met our members there for the past two solid years due to the war. Although we  had more than 70,000 members in Tigray, we have no information about them so we went to learn their  whereabouts and to know the problems they have faced and their situation in general.

Addis Standard: I guess you knew Tigray before the war, what did you see? And What did you find out about your members?

Kassahun: – Yes, I knew Mekelle and its environs before the war because we had members there. Now, in fact, I did not see much damage in Mekelle city and there is certain movement in the city, there are three-wheel vehicles and cars moving despite the shortage of fuel. Generally speaking, however, since the region was at war, the damage was extensive and it was severely affected by the war. Of course, we only spent one day there, so we didn’t get enough opportunity to go around and see lots of things, but we went to Wukro town near Mekelle and saw two factories: Sheba Leather Industry P.L.C and Semayata Dimension Stone Factory.

Sheba Leather Industry P.L.C previously had 1,200 employees. The whereabouts of these workers is currently unknown. The organization was completely destroyed. It has nothing to be repaired. Every system has been bombed and not even a single screw can be fixed and used. It is demolished 100%. The management members we met there said that they have not yet called the workers and they said that they do not know the whereabouts of the workers.  In fact, some workers were victimized by hunger and those we met and saw are also in serious trouble unless they get immediate help.

Sheba Leather Industry P.L.C was an institution that was bringing foreign currency to Ethiopia before the war. It was producing quality products both for export and the local market. It was one of the modern factories in Ethiopia. Although it was contributing to the country in earning forex, it was demolished by explosives. If each of the workers had on average five families, 6000 people would be supported by the income from this factory. However, at present all these people fell under hunger.

Similarly the Semayata Dimension Stone Factory was completely destroyed. There was not a single screw left to use. Even a part of a crane that goes into the ground and digs a hole has been detonated on purpose. As it will cost a lot of money to get everything out of the hole, it makes it impossible to re-establish the factory in the same place.  

Addis Standard: If the conditions of the institutions and the workers look like this, what do you think will be their next fate?

Kassahun: – It is very difficult to tell what will happen next. In fact, we only saw the two factories. According to the leaders of the branch of the confederation in Tigray, Almeda Textile Factory was also destroyed completely, just 100%. As they explained to us in our meeting the next day to the visit, there are also lots of other factories that have been completely demolished. Up to now, only Messebo Cement Factory and Mesfin Industrial Engineering have partially started their operations.

The fate of the workers can be viewed from two perspectives. One is those whose institutions have been completely destroyed and the other is those workers whose institutions have fully or partially resumed operation. The fate of the workers of the completely destroyed factories will be very difficult unless the regional and federal governments seek a solution. Imagine, these workers do not have land to engage in farming, neither do they have place and money to trade. It is very difficult to maintain their own lives and that of their families. These workers and their families need special attention and support from the regional and federal governments. Employees of those federal branch institutions in Tigray that have fully or partially resumed their operation have already begun their jobs. 

However, following our visit to the two factories, the members of CETU in the region told us there are lots of factories that have already been completely demolished and the situation of the workers has been worse. Then, we decided to conduct a study to have the right data showing the alive and dead workers and those who are injured. Besides, the factories that can be rehabilitated and those that cannot be repaired. 

However, at present we do not have aggregated information. We have heard that the workers in Tigray either died in the war or were hurt by hunger, but in order to have aggregated information, we have decided to have a project to conduct the study in the entire Tigray and we are discussing with aid organizations to get the money that will enable us to deploy the experts we need for the study and the necessary facilities such as fuel and cars.

Addis Standard: What does the situation look like in relation to the wage payments of these workers?

Kassahun: – Workers in Tigray have not received wages for two years due to the war. They neither accessed their money due to lack of banking services nor any supply was there due to the war. Therefore, the damage is so huge. Hence, it is not difficult for anyone to imagine the extent of the harm that due to the war, there are no jobs, no wages, no supplies.

“The biggest problem will be how to help the employees whose factories have been completely destroyed”

Kassahun Follo, President CETU

At present, federal firms such as Commercial Bank of Ethiopia, Ethio-Telecom, Ethiopia Power Authority, etc. have already resumed their operation and they have just started paying salaries to their employees and some of them have paid three months back pay for their employees. These workers have hope for the future. However, nothing has not yet been known about the two years back pay of all employees in the region.  In fact, we have a plan to talk to the relevant parties. The biggest problem will be how to help the employees whose factories have been completely destroyed. In this regard, the regional and federal government should find a solution to help these employees. They must quickly create jobs, support the partially destroyed factories by using either banks or other methods that will enable them to start operation quickly.

In addition to this, the workers from Humera “Hiwot Mechanization Farm” and “Wolkait Sugar Factory” have been displaced and are waiting for help at Mekelle. The workers who spent their whole lives in the factories have no place to stay, so they are in a tent. These workers have been displaced with their families and are sheltering in tents and are in dire straits and need a lot of support. The government should also support them. CETU does not have the capacity to subsidize such establishments, but it is making preparations to help the employees of the institutions who have been able to start working by providing them with various psychological and related trainings.

Addis Standard: Even if you can’t support them financially, don’t you have the responsibility to ensure the rights of workers so that workers get their unpaid salaries?

Kassahun: This is our main job, so we will do it. We are working to solve the problem that needs to be solved through discussions with the relevant bodies. But in terms of money, being a union, we cannot do direct funding to them. But as you said, we will continue to strengthen the work of making it happen by monitoring the institutions that are capable of paying.  We will also request firms that resumed operation partially to pay workers the arrears of wages. For the workers who were working in those completely destroyed institutions, we are asking the regional and the federal governments to find ways in supporting the workers.

Addis Standard: There are grievances of workers in various organizations, hired with the help of agencies, on unfair remuneration for their work and that they are subjected to labor exploitation and other forms of abuses. How does CETU view this and what is it doing?

Kassahun: A directive was issued in 2019 in connection with this matter. In the decree, the 20/80 guideline was drafted by the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs, which directs the allotment of the 20% of the salary for administrative expenses of the agencies and the 80% for the employee. However, the agencies disagreed to enforce this guideline that resulted in an argument in the court.  

The dispute went all the way to the Federal Supreme Court and got a decision. Despite the fact that the verdict was made, the problem still persisted. The Ministry of Labor and Skills sent a letter to the Regional Labor and Social Affairs Bureaus, including to Addis Abeba City Administration but still it is not under implementation. Therefore, we still have to talk with the relevant parties for its enactment.  

Addis Standard: – If you knew that it hasn’t been implemented, what efforts have you done so far?

Kassahun: – We had a stance to terminate the agency hiring system and insisted on firms to hire themselves but there is a decree that mandated agencies to hire individuals for other firms described as outsourcing. The notion in this case is the fact that organizations can outsource non-core production tasks so that they can focus on their core business. Based on this, agencies have been established and there are independent decrees and guidelines for their work. The problem now is not their taking part in hiring employees but the way they manage.

“… we have to continue our efforts to enforce the 20/80 directive to terminate labor exploitation”

Kassahun Follo, President CETU

Instead of taking fair commission for their administrative expenses, the agencies have engaged in labor exploitation.  For example, if a company takes 10,000 Birr on behalf of a person, and then it may take 7,000 or 6000 Birr for itself and pays the worker 3,000 or 4000 Birr.  Agencies do this only by handling the administrative work without exerting any effort for production. However, these agencies disagree to implement the 20/80 so that caution is required that they are using most of the money for themselves.

For instance, if an agency working in this job earns at least 5,000 Birr from each employee and if it hires 10 people, it will earn 50,000 Birr per month. So, it does not need any other job as it could simply accumulate wealth. Therefore, we have to continue our efforts to enforce the 20/80 directive to stop this labor exploitation. In fact, agencies do some tasks like hiring and managing employees and rent offices for this task so they need some commission.  The 20% of the salary is enough for these administrative expenses, but 80 % of the salary must be paid to the employee.

Of course, this practice of agencies is common in developed countries. However, these countries have a system, everything is easy to control, they have strict laws, they have surveillance so there is no problem. In our country, there is no system, no strong monitoring capability, no strict law enforcement, and the controlling body is not strong enough. For this reason, the presence of agencies is inappropriate to our country at this time.  Besides, the developed countries need this for there is a shortage of manpower that they find it difficult to go out to the market and hire someone for it takes up time.  So, they hire an agency to do it for them and they focus on their core tasks.  But in our country, when an advertisement is published to hire 10 people, more than 100 job seekers will be registered. In this regard, outsourcing this task to agencies is unnecessary amidst enough manpower.

However, there is a law that allows agencies to do such tasks and it is also in the International Labor Organization (ILO) that we cannot terminate their legal responsibility. Rather, we proceeded to have a guideline that we believed in. As a result, the 20/80 guideline was set but agencies did not agree and the implementation was still crippled. Now the problem is getting worse. Therefore, we will push to the implementation of the 20/80 guideline talking with the relevant parties.

Addis Standard: Workers working particularly in industrial parks are also suffering from low wages in addition to other forms of abuse. So what did the federation do in this regard?

Kassahun: – We started the movement in 2019 for the minimum level of wage to be determined by law so that low salary earners could be beneficiaries. The minimum wage in industrial parks and other institutions is between 800 and 1200 Birr. How can a person live with this salary? Although a decree was issued to have a board that can study the economic status of the country and decide on the minimum wage level in the country, it hasn’t yet been carried out. Despite the discussion on the establishment guideline for the board in 2021, its implementation is retarded due to the occurrence of national election and the war in the country.

So far, we have not been able to get an answer to our request for the level of minimum wage to be decided. Therefore, we are still asking the government to pass a decision. The living standard has skyrocketed these days. One cannot live with 800 or 1200 Birr. A person needs at least 1,500 Birr per month to eat “Shiro” once a day, if one meal is to cost 50 Birr. This means forgetting everything behind such expenses for transport, clothes, health and other important basic things. At the time, the entire workforce is in a dire situation even those who are supposed to be earning a good salary. The highest salary in our country’s context is 8,000 to 10,000. At present a quintal of “Teff” costs 8000 and above, so how do wage earners manage to live?  It is hard for the employees to fulfill basic needs with the salary they earn currently.

Therefore, we have asked the government to reduce labor taxes. Despite our inquiry for reduction of labor taxes, we heard that the government has rather recently increased Value Added-Tax (VAT) , forget to say reducing taxes for the employees who are suffering. What does this mean? It is difficult so that the government must answer our question because the cost of living has already skyrocketed while salaries are stuck at a fixed amount and the employees are in a position where they cannot eat once a day.

We have recently written letters to various concerned parties to pursue the implementation of the 20/80 rule on one hand and the reduction of income taxes on the other hand.  In this regard, we have approached the Prime Minister’s Office as the last level that CETU can go to, but we have not yet received any answer. If this issue is not resolved, all the workers are forced to look for humanitarian aid. Hence, the government should give the wage earners a solution by responding to our request of tax reduction affirmatively.

Addis Standard: Tell us what your confederation has achieved and the challenges it faces with regard to protecting the rights of the workers?

Kasahun: – What we consider as one of the achievements in respecting the rights of the employees is the efforts to alleviate the problem imposed by agencies. Firstly, these employees were not managed under the confederation rather they were managed by another decree and they were even not considered as employees.   We were struggling for the amendment of the decree and we have been fighting for them to be included in the Employer and Worker Act.  They were included in the Employer and Worker Act in 2019. Then, we began struggling to ensure the lower-level salary to be fixed. 

Since they cannot negotiate with the employer in terms of capacity, it is a matter of human rights, so we struggled for a directive to be issued. Then the 20/80 guideline was issued in 2019 after a long-time effort and a lot of struggle and negotiations. However, when we were about to get into action, the agencies revolted against the decree arguing that they could work on agreement bases with the employees. Despite its delay and rejections from the agencies that still need further efforts, the 20/80 Proclamation is a success.

Moreover, the decree that was amended in 2019 was not similar to the current one. The one that we managed to get discarded included articles like “if one is absent for a day regardless of any reason, he/she would be fired and if one has become late for two days a month, he/she will be fired”. Imagine, if one is late for 10 minutes or 30 minutes in a country where there is no transportation access, he/she will be fired from his/her job. Besides, the workers have only seven days of annual leave. There were so many things in that decree but we managed to change and have a revised current decree. 

Another significant issue is the efforts exerted to have the minimum wage level which has never been included in Ethiopia’s employer and employee law. We have been clamoring for the minimum wage level to be included in the law and we have been negotiating for many years.  

We presented the issue to the government and we have been waiting for it to get a solution. We wrote letters to the concerned Ministry of Labor and Skills, to the Ministry of Finance and Economy as well as to the Prime Minister Office in a bid to resume discussion to establish a guideline for the board that determines the minimum wage in the country.  

So, we are asking the government that we are hungry and can not survive tolerating the skyrocketing of the living standard.  Our question now is twofold: the government to reduce the labor tax and to facilitate the establishment of the board that is mandated to fix the lower labor prices.  However, as our request was ignored, get no response so far, wage earners are suffering from the rising living conditions.

The message that I want to convey at this occasion is that it would be good for the government to talk to the workers, to have a meeting with them and listen to their problems. At present, there is no body to take care of the workers in the country. The workers have been experiencing a lot of problems that they could not manage the cost of living. The government should talk to the employee and solve their problem so that it should not discriminate against the employee. We should not be excluded and the door should not be closed to us. The government should rather open its door for discussion and respond to the questions posed by the workers. AS

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