It has been a while since the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs (MoLSA) has started to amend the labor law. While two minor amendments were previously made on the 2003 labor law, the particular focus of the amendment this time around is to improve working conditions and productivity, which MoLSA believes, are two sides of the same coin.
While the draft law is set to touch on various issues including annual leave, overtime and probation, it has become a cause of contention for the Confederation of Ethiopian Trade Unions (CETU), an alliance of trade unions (nine industry federations). As to CETU, some of the articles of the labor law do not set to protect the rights of employees.
"We have been holding discussions on the draft law for the past six years. Especially in 2015/16, we held a tripartite discussion through the Tripartite Advisory Board (TAB) and agreed to send the document and the points raised to the Council of Ministers," says Kassahun Follo, Confederation President. "The Council then sent back the draft document, claiming that there were other parties that should have been part of the discussion."
TAB consists of five ministers from the government's side, and five each from the leadership of CETU and Ethiopia's Employers' Federation. The Board is led by MoLSA and advises the Minister, oversees employees' and employers' affairs, as well as labor laws and their execution.
"No modification was made on the articles we have reservation on" says Kassahun. "After reviewing the draft document, members of CETU, executive committees of the nine industry federations and experts sat down and held discussions on each article. We have identified 18 articles which we believe would harm the basic rights of employees. In addition, we have also proposed additional 16 articles to be included in the draft law based on other countries' experiences and Ethiopia's contexts."
MoLSA held discussions with CETU's executive body with the presence of the Minister before presenting. "Yet, none of the 18 articles which we have reservation on or the 16 articles we proposed were accepted. Again, they were not also accepted during the TAB's meeting."
And there is no legal procedure to submit CETU's concerns to the Council of Ministers. "It is up to the Minister to include our ideas. Thus, as our concerns might not reach the Council and other government bodies, we sent letters to 32 ministers, who are members of the council, stating that 'the endorsement of the draft law would harm the rights of employees and disturb industrial peace as well as production and productivity. '"
There are some 1644 basic unions in the country, each having at least a leadership comprising eight members. Prior to its decision, CETU called all of them to participate and four leadership members from each union participated on average.
"We have selected 11 centers across the country and organized a discussion forum. Participants also called on us to discuss CETU's concerns with the government and resolve them," he says adding, "During CETU's Supreme Council ordinary session last October, the leadership held discussion on the issue and came up with an 11 points resolution."
The government has promised CETU that it would organize a discussion forum on the draft labor law. The responsible bodies to organize the forum have already been assigned. The date for the discussion has not yet been decided, according to the President.
He also claims that the 18 articles do not guarantee employee's job security and right to organize and make collective bargain. "Unions in companies could not discharge their responsibilities properly as they do not have the power to bargain. In addition, employers also exert a lot of influence. In many cases, occupational safety and security are not ensured," he argues.
According to the response The Ethiopian Herald receives from the MoLSA's Communication Office, the Ministry, as an institution, does not believe that any law that does not protect the interests of the nation and employees would be drafted.
In fact, it is not only CETU but Ethiopian Employers' Federations has also reservations on some of the articles of the draft law. On the other hand, according to the response, the Ministry encourages the habit of collective bargain.
"We want MoLSA to organize discussion forms for employers and employees to raise awareness about the constitutional rights of employees and other labor laws. Yet, the Ministry has not done this as of today;" Kassahun asserts adding, "basically; it is not possible to improve work culture only through the application of law. The Ministry, at the first place, as an executor of the law, has to create awareness."
As to him, CETU started an initiative to raise the awareness eight years ago by organizing discussion forums to improve work culture, but lacked the capacity to sustain it. "We believe that the culture of work can be improved through attitudinal change, besides formulating laws."
On the other hand, according to MoLSA's Communication Office, the Ministry has been building the capacity of the CETU leadership but it cannot organize an awareness creation conference at each factory level as it is a federal institution.
"It is not possible to change working culture with one or two conferences. It is a generational issue and requires multifaceted efforts and undertakings. And the Ministry has to be mandated to undertake such activities."
Fekadu Gebru is Harmonious Industrial Relation Directorate Director at MoLSA. He argues that the draft law is not only intended to improve work culture. It is set to create peaceful industrial relation between employers and employees, and improve work discipline, working conditions [both in terms of social and economic benefits] and productivity as well.
"It is impossible to separate working conditions and productivity. So the draft law is basically set to improve working condition. And when you want to improve working conditions, you have to also need to increase productivity."
As to him, CETU's claims are one sided. "Their concern is only about working conditions," he says. "What about productivity? If you do not increase productivity and profitability, it would be impossible to invest to improve working conditions and provide social services to employees."
For instance, annual leave is a paid leave. The employer shares its profit with the employee so that the latter has leisure time. So the draft law does not see productivity and working conditions separately, the Director adds.
"In addition, when we amend the overtime law, we also amended the overtime payment. For instance, the overtime payment has increased from 1.25 to 1.5 birr per hour during day time and from 1.5 to 1.75 per hour during the night shift," he says. "Besides, the change also benefits the employees who want to earn extra money from overtime."
He also says the draft law is set to reduce lateness and absenteeism, habits that significantly affect productivity. "We cannot still say the draft law is amended until it receives green light by the legislative body," Fekadu says.
Meanwhile CETU has been exerting a lot effort in the past three years to organize workers in large scale. "We have planned to organize at least 270 trade unions in same number of organizations annually. At the start, we tried to organize unions through campaigns. An organizing taskforce which comprised stakeholders was organized and tried to organize unions for almost one year," Kassahun states.
Organizing trade unions is a continuous task. As industries are rapidly expanding, it could not be possible to always try to organize unions through campaigns. "Thus, to make it a continuous task, all the nine industry federations have to make it part of their plan and their ordinary or day to day task. It is industry federations that closely organize unions," the President stresses. "Once they organize and become member of federations and confederations, CETU will deliver trainings to the unions' leadership."