Roto Plc refused to reinstate 14 employees it had dismissed as well as 20 employees who went on strike as a result of the former. The company is willing to pay them compensation, it announced on Wednesday, August 4, 2010.
Following the dismissal of the 14 employees for not showing up to work on time on July 9, 2010, another 20 employees went on strike in support of their colleagues on July 30, claiming that the company had failed to honour the agreement it had signed with the employees' labour union.
The labour union received legal recognition on June 14, 2009, a year after its formation which has been cause for contention between them and the company, the union claimed.
"The company started its harassment right after the formation of the labour union which has forced some members to leave the union," said Mohammed Ali, deputy chairman of the union.
This is the third time employees of Roto have gone on strike. The first time was on May 9, 2009, because of a dispute over salary increments which the employees claimed was given to them every month and was suddenly stopped.
"At the time, the employees did not have a labour union and went back to work without their demands being met", Mengistu Ayalew, chairman of the union, told Fortune.
However, Roto contests this claim.
"The employees went on strike claiming salary increments which were delayed for five days, but was given to all," said Jacob Mathews, Roto country manager for Ethiopia and Mozambique. "Previously the company gave increments to all workers but decided [to start doing it] only for a few hard working employees and to motivate the others. We could not afford to give increments to everyone, every month."
Following the first strike, the employees formed a labour association which got legal recognition on June 14, 2010. Both the employees and the company approved the formation and signed an agreement on shift specifications.
There are three shifts for different machines - from 6:00am to 3:00pm, from 11:00am to 8:00pm, and from 8:00pm to 5:00am, according to the agreement.
"The company made changes to the times of the second and third shifts without consulting the employees, which resulted in the second strike on June 7, 2010," Mengistu said.
The company rearranged the shifts to compensate for a one-hour gap between the first and the third shifts while there is electricity from Ethiopian Electric Power Corporation (EEPCO). This also saves one hour of generator power later in the day when the power is disconnected, according to Mathews.
The company has notified the employees of the changes to occur "on four different occasions," says Mathews.
Like the first strike, the second also did not result in any agreement and the employees returned to work with a 250 Br penalty while asking for the shift hours to be changed back to the original.
On June 14, 2010, 14 employees were fired for not showing up on time for the new shift. The other 20 employees were forced to stay in the factory for the duration of their shifts for four days, even if there was no power for them to work, according to Mengistu.
There was no such problem, according to Mathews.
The labour union gave the Addis Abeba City Administration Social and Labour Issues Office, the National Federation of Energy Chemical and Mine Trade Unions (NFECMTU), and the company a 10-day notice of the planned strike on July 20, 2010, if the problems were not worked out and their colleagues reinstated.
We left the mediation process after being accused of siding with Roto for not approving the strike notice, Workeneh Miseker, education and training officer at the Social and Labour Issues Office, told Fortune.
Roto agreed to reinstate the 20 employees, to implement the agreement with the labour union, to notify the NFECMTU about the fate of the 14 dismissed employees within three days, to cancel the 250 Br penalty it had imposed on the employees, and to respect the human rights of the employees at the meeting held in the presence of the federation.
However, the company did not keep its promise as agreed, Firew Bekele, president of the NFECMTU, told Fortune.
The labour union raised many issues that they said infringed on their rights.
"The company prohibited us from going to the toilet and drinking water, which is against our human rights." Mengistu said. "It also failed to provide us with eye glasses, uniforms, and safety gloves and shoes."
The company ordered employees to get permission to do these activities because they were using the opportunity to talk among themselves, wasting working hours, according to Mathews.
"We provided them with eye glasses, uniforms, and safety gloves, but the shoes were delayed because the company failed to order them on time," Mathews told Fortune.
The federation is the only mediator left in negotiations to settle the issue peacefully and to bring back the employees to their jobs as they requested. However, it has not yet decided on how to pursue the issue if agreements are not reached between the employees and the company, according to Firew.
The options are to notify the Confederation of Ethiopian of Trade Unions which is a higher authority than the federation and to go to court if things are not settled through negotiation, Firew said.
"The company has hired and trained 20 new employees and decided not to bring back the 34 employees," said Mathews. "We would rather pay compensation and let them go."
Roto claims to have lost one million Birr and failed to deliver orders worth half a million Birr, due to the strike.
"We are currently producing at 10pc of the capacity of the factory," said Mathews.
All the employees want their jobs back, not the compensation that the company is offering, according to Mengistu.
"If we can not get our jobs back through negotiation we will be forced to go to court to have our rights respected," Mengistu said.
Roto Plc, which was established in 2001, has its headquarters in Kenya and operates in Sudan, Mozambique, Rwanda, Congo Brazzaville, and Burundi. The company produces plastic water tanks, mobile toilets, and other equipment and employs 56 people at its factory and offices in Addis Abeba.