The rapid economic growth of Ethiopia during the past ten years has been paving the way towards industrialization. Several investors and companies from different parts of the world are currently engaged in different industrial sectors. Nation's peace and stability, natural resource potential as well as friendly investment policy are attracting many investors to be part of the progress.
Thus, the industrialization process in current realities should not just be about building factories and utilizing the labor force in a way that benefits those with financial or political power. It should be a process that involves several sectors and every step needs to take various socioeconomic aspects into consideration including human safety, natural resource management and environmental protection.
Therefore, Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) and harmonious industrial relations is one of the major principles which determine the fate of the nation's industrialization. That is because a successful industrialization requires the existence of healthy industrial relationship between employers and employees. In this case, the proper implementation of a Nation's labor law or proclamation plays a crucial role in creating this healthy relationship.
The Ethiopian Labor Proclamation states that every employee has the right to enjoy suitable measures of protection and safety and hygiene at work as the employer is required to take all the necessary measures to safeguard the health and safety of workers. Employers must take appropriate measures to ensure that workers are properly instructed and notified about the risks and imminent danger related to their respective occupations and precautions necessary to avoid accidents and injury to health.
There is no doubt this obligations need proper follow-ups from the responsible organs. Currently the duty is on the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs and Associations of OSH, as well as employees and employers.
Yifokir Tefera, PHD fellow in OSH at Addis Ababa University and president of the Ethiopian Occupational Safety and Health Professionals Association says the labor force in Ethiopia is growing rapidly in relation with the nation's economic development and the industrial progress.
He tells the Ethiopian Herald that even though it has been many years since Ethiopia has become member of the International Labor Organization (ILO) and signed different conventions, much has not been done in terms of OSH.
According to him, the major problem has been low level of awareness about OSH between employees and employers as well as some executive bodies of the government. "Some employers thought that the idea of OSH only increases cost of production. Some executive bodies or labor inspectors also thought that the OSH would discourage industrialization and investors. "
However, there are tangible improvements being witnessed currently as the government has given due attention for the issue and provided policies and legal frame works based on the standards of ILO. Joint efforts are also being undertaken by the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs (MOLSA) and ILO in terms awareness creation about OSH and industrial relations, says Yifokir.
"Though Association is still at its infancy, we are working with MOLSA and ILO. We give long and short term trainings for employers and employees at their work places. Building the capacity of labor inspectors is significant in order to maintain quality and professional OSH service. As a result, we have trained and graduated more than forty labor inspectors of the government in three rounds of Masters Program in collaboration with Addis Ababa University."
Yifokir also says OSH management system trainings were given for employers of selected and voluntary companies. He adds the Association use international occasions on OSH and May Day celebrations to create awareness and distribute teaching materials for employees' associations in different States throughout the country over the past few years. "This year, we have celebrated the days in East Industrial Zone with ILO, discharging similar responsibilities."
Somehow, unhealthy industrial relations emerge for most employees and employers argue about the use and quality of safety materials or equipments. Employees may say they are not provided with quality safety equipments while employers argue that the employees do not use the materials appropriately. There may be faults on both sides, according to Yifokir.
Sometimes, both could make deals to compromise the use of safety equipments for the sake of illegal benefits including paper money. "One cannot prevent work related accidents by substituting safety equipments with money. It rather increases the accidents and declines productivity. Such accidents could also create unexpected burden on the health sector," he says.
He noted that whenever there is gap in OSH and industrial relations, the consequence could affect the employee and employer. One work related accident would cause temporary or permanent physical damage or loss of life to the employee and affect the lives of his/her family in different ways. On the other hand, the employer or company (industry) loses huge amount of finance due to compensation payments.
Yifokir adds that most employers could focus mainly in protecting or increasing their profit margin. In order to realize it, they incline to increase their productivity by involving their labor force with extra or part time jobs, which leads to accidents and crisis.
"In this case, losing a skilled labor force is a problem that cannot be easily compensated. However, if the accident results in a damage that may lead to the shutting down of the industry, the problem could be worse. And that is unemployment which affects many of those whose lives depend on the employees' support. It has also its own effect on the national economy," says Yifokir.
From the experiences of some of the world's biggest companies or industries, protecting their brand is a priority task. They invest a lot in building and protecting their brands. Therefore, work related accidents could cause the companies or industries not only a temporary financial or material loss but also loss of customers' trust in their brands.
The first ILO principle of OSH is avoiding hazard from working areas. Providing safety equipments is the last option. However, it is hardly possible to completely avoid hazard but only decrease it. This could be done by replacing hazardous materials and places with less hazardous ones and finally by fulfilling the facility to safety equipments.
According to Tilahun Niguse Assistant Coordinator of the Labor Affairs Board at the Bureau of Addis Ababa Labor and Social Affairs (BOLSA) the industrial investment in Ethiopia is only an emerging sector. As a result, it could be beyond the capacity of companies owned by local investors to utilize the latest and expensive machines.
He says more than forty eight cases have been processed in the past fiscal year alone. These industrial disputes have different causes which are related with contract termination, salary or OSH.
In this case, Tilahun emphasizes that awareness raising tasks about the labor law and harmonious industrial relations are intensified by the labor inspectors as well as the Labor Board of the Bureau. He says more than seven hundred employees and employers have gained the service from the Board only in the past fiscal year.
However, Yifokir strongly argues that improving OSH systems is the order of the day and that starts by accepting the fact that OSH is a significant part and parcel of investment. Creating close relationship between employers' federations and employees' associations or safety committees could also play crucial role.
There are common values that employees and employers could share. And these jobs are the basic socioeconomic values for the working class and productivity is one of the major goals for industries. Both cannot be achieved if there is no healthy or harmonious industrial relationship between employers and employees.
When the Ethiopian labor proclamation considers the safety and health of the employees, productivity of industries is also a priority concern. Thus, employees have also strict regulations stated on the proclamation.
As a result, the government is exerting effort on encouraging investment and peaceful industrial relations with policies and strategies that could benefit both employees and employers. The labor proclamation clearly states the responsibilities and regulation of both parties. Everything that is in the labor law and the responsibilities given to the executive structures including the labor board are aimed at protecting the investment, working man power involved in it and sustaining the industrialization, notes Tilahun.
Farther more, the implementation of the labor law is being undertaken in a consultative way that could benefit both the employees and employers. This is the very step forward for the country towards industrialization which aims to change the lives of those not only with mouths to feed but also who run big companies and create jobs for their fellow citizens.