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Genet is monitoring OSH in an Ethiopian garment factory

From scissors to sexual harassment, the ILO SIRAYE programme, of which Vision Zero Fund is an integral part, aims to build a better OSH culture in a sector dominated by women.”

Genet starts her days at 5 a.m. She wakes up, opens an app on her phone, and completes a short workout session. Then, she reheats last night’s dinner and eats it for breakfast, gets dressed, and heads to the bus stop. Her shift at the factory starts at 8 a.m., with a safety announcement.

In her announcement, Genet reminds her co-workers to use precautions with scissors, a common culprit for injuries. She sings the praises of using eye and finger guards, to prevent accidents. And she doles out copious reminders throughout the day.

“The cutting line usually forgets to wear gloves, so I remind them of that,” she said. “Then, there’s the COVID stuff: social distancing while entering and lining up for lunch, wearing a mask, and using hand sanitizer.”

Next, Genet makes sure that everyone is following the rules she just called out. In her first safety check of the day, she methodically ensures the functioning and security of every tool and worker, line by line. 

Once complete, she writes a report to submit to her supervisor. She repeats the safety check every two hours, up to four times per day or depending on the buyer’s request. 

Everywhere she looks, there are women: sewing, cutting, checking. The garment industry is highly dependent on women, who make up 80% of all workers in the sector.

Safety officer, meet OSH training course

27-year-old Genet Habte is from Holeta, in the Oromia region of Ethiopia. After high school, she moved to Addis Ababa, the capital, to study fashion design at Ethio-China Polytechnic College. She lives in the city with her aunt.

Genet works at Ashton Apparel Manufacturing, a large garment exporter with 2,000 workers. Over the past five years, she has moved up the ranks – from cutting line to production line quality in charge to her current role as safety officer.

As a safety officer, Genet monitors the safety of people and equipment. She makes sure that the workers are wearing the right personal protective equipment (PPE), properly handling sharp tools like needles and scissors, and correctly using and storing chemicals. 

It is also her responsibility to ensure a safe working environment. For example, she needs to be certain that all emergency exit doors are accessible. She also checks moisture, humidity, and temperature, to make sure they are conducive to the products and for the workers.

Ethiopia’s textile and garment sector is booming.

Employment in the textiles and apparel industry is estimated at 798,752 in 2018 and is forecast to grow 86% through 2025, creating more that 683,000 new direct jobs and almost 868,000 new indirect jobs.

The garment and textile industries are among the priorities of the Ethiopian Government under the Growth and Transformation Plan (GTPII), aiming to lift Ethiopia to the status of middle-income country by 2025. The sector has continued to be relevant and is included in the new 10-year development plan (2021-2030) as a priority sector.

The garment sector employs 62,000 workers nationwide, representing 17.5% of the manufacturing labour force. Most workers are women, comprising 60% of workers in the cutting stage of production and 90% of workers in the sewing stage.

Industrial parks now dot the landscape across the country. Six of them are government-built: Bole Lemi (where Genet works), Hawassa, Mekelle, Jimma, Adama, and Kombolcha. They all focus on the garment and textile sector. And they have changed the lives of thousands of Ethiopians.

Introduced over the past few years, the nine operational industrial parks in Ethiopia have created a total of 64,000 jobs in 2019. According to an ILO report, the sector provides formal jobs primarily to first-time and young job seekers.

An additional six government-planned industrial parks are in the works, and will cover a wider range of sectors including food processing, vehicle assembly, and pharmaceuticals.

Of course, challenges persist. Ethiopia’s private sector development constraints include a shortage of a skilled and productive labour force, access to finance, and trade logistics inefficiencies, among others.

Addressing these constraints will require policy interventions, investment, and technical assistance.

Why OSH is so important to the garment industry

But, poor working conditions and low wages persist, resulting in low productivity and high turnover. Noncompliance with OSH best practices also hinder growth.

Some of the key factors that affect workers in Ethiopia’s industry include low wages, access to decent, affordable housing, and the personal safety and health of women workers. 

Workers report occupational safety and health challenges in factories. Nearly 45% of workers say they have concerns about safety, including accidents or injuries at work. In some settings, such as factories located in industrial parks, workers’ concerns with their personal safety during their daily commute actually exceeds their concerns with safety while at the workplace.

In addition, many women working in these factories struggle with period poverty, which refers to the lack of access to sanitary products, menstrual hygiene education, toilets, hand washing facilities, and waste management. Pregnant workers do not always have conducive working hour arrangements, and are sometimes expected to handle chemicals and waste without adequate PPE.

Factories are aware of the problems and have started to take action. They are doing things like providing personal hygiene training, providing free sanitary products, and supplying uniforms.

  As an integral component of the SIRAYE program, Vision Zero Fund, jointly with Better Work and SCORE, strives to improve working conditions of target factories addressing the above mentioned challenges from multiple angles.

Women work in a factory in the Bole Lemi industrial park.

Sister Rahel Yaregal stands outside the First Aid Station in a factory in Addis Ababa.

Women work in a factory in Addis Ababa.

If Genet’s co-workers follow her safety advice, they could:

  • improve productivity and competitiveness; 
  • encourage accountable and transparent government institutions; 
  • and create an enabling environment to prevent work-related deaths, injuries, and diseases.

Genet works in an industry that her government believes will make Ethiopia a middle-income country by 2025.

OSH, pass it on

The most common injuries in the factory happen with scissors. Often, workers do not wear finger guards, which can lead to accidents if the scissors slip. Genet herself suffered an injury while she was trimming a button. 

She was lucky – the cut could have been much worse. As she learned from the SIRAYE OSH training course, safety at work not only affects productivity and morale; in serious cases, it is also a matter of life or death.

The OSH course covered topics that Genet is now familiar with, like chemical storage and protective equipment. It also prepared her to better explain those important concepts to her co-workers.

One of the key features of this training is its domino effect: once a cohort completes the course, they turn around and pass it on to their colleagues. Genet’s cohort managed to train 100 workers per week.

Things are already changing for the better. There have been fewer accidents, and workers are more knowledgeable about the safety procedures. But there is still a lot of work that needs to be done to build a safety and health culture in the sector.  

Some of Genet’s colleagues think that safety measures benefit the factory itself, not the people working there.

“I have a bit of a scar on my middle finger.”

“We try to help them realize these measures are about personal safety, too.”

Setting boundaries at work

In the OSH course, Genet expected to learn about things like tools and chemicals. So when the trainers began talking about sexual harassment, she was surprised.

“To be honest, I didn’t quite understand what sexual harassment means,” Genet said. 

As part of the SIRAYE project, Genet completed training sessions specifically focused on sexual harassment in the workplace. She learned about what constitutes sexual harassment – a broader definition than she thought – and what to do if it happens to her.

“I didn’t know how important consent is.”

How COVID-19 changed life in the factory

“I was so scared the first time I heard a case was registered in Ethiopia, because I had heard how bad it was in other countries.”

In early 2020, COVID-19 cases were rising and governments were shutting down. The Ashton factory watched as the global demand for garments plummeted.

Genet was afraid of losing her job. But, despite her initial worries, she became busier than ever. She began monitoring handwashing, the use of masks and sanitizers, and social distancing measures. As a result of COVID-19, OSH emerged as a top priority.

An April 2020 survey of Ethiopian manufacturers showed that the capacity utilization rate decreased by 30% in the first part of 2020, compared to the same period in 2019. Companies have used forced leave, rotational and shift work, and other strategies to minimize expenses during COVID-19.

However, Vision Zero Fund launched a multi-country project to complement efforts undertaken by SIRAYE to protect garment workers, with components on wage subsidies and occupational safety and health. The latter is led by Vision Zero Fund, with the Ethiopian garment factories and their workers being some of the main beneficiaries of the project.

The goal was to reduce the vulnerability of textile and garment workers in the face of COVID-19. Namely, it aimed to keep factories open and operational, retain workforces, and ultimately build a more resilient social protection system.

Up next

In the short term, Genet would like to be promoted to quality manager. In the long term, though, she hopes to start her own fashion company once she saves enough money and gains experience.

“I have learned a lot since joining this factory. I feel confident this experience offers me a strong ground for running my own business in the future.”

Learn more

These impact stories were produced with the financial support of the European Union.