Ethiopia: Booming Business, Underpaid Workers

Low wages have attracted foreign players to Ethiopia, but labourers are hoping for better salaries. (Photo: Within a few years foreign companies have helped build up Ethiopia's nascent industry/Al Jazeera)

Al Jazeera

By Simona Foltyn

Addis Ababa, Ethiopia - Lunch break is over at the Huajian shoe factory and workers assemble in perfectly aligned two-row formations, march, salute, and return back to their work stations.

“Our factory is a bit like a military organisation. The labour here is not highly educated so we have to use a very simple way to communicate and organise them,” said Nara Zhou, Huajian’s spokeswoman, as she walks through the aisles of the large factory hall.

Red banners with writing in Chinese, Amharic and English hang from the ceiling, bearing lofty slogans such as “China-Africa friendly and harmonious enterprise, to win honour for the country”, and “High level of democracy”.

They are excerpts of speeches given by the company’s president, Zhang Hua Rong, a former military officer who established Huajian’s operation in Ethiopia in 2012, Zhou explained.

Within a few years, foreign companies such as Huajian have helped build up Ethiopia’s nascent footwear industry from scratch.

Today, the company employs about 3,000 workers in Ethiopia and generates $20m worth of exports by producing shoes for international brands such as Guess, Naturalizer and Toms destined for US and European markets.

With a growing number of brands such as H&M starting to source from Ethiopia and existing companies ramping up production capacity, the three percent of Ethiopia’s exports that came from textiles and leather in 2013 may well double in the next couple of years, according to government estimates.

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