Fashion companies like H & M have had their clothes produced in Asia for years. Now they have discovered an even cheaper location: Ethiopia. The seamstress Tigist earns hardly more than one euro a day there. She is stressed – and yet satisfied. Why?
Get off the bus quickly. Walk on fast. Don’t dawdle. Walk across the street, along the dirt road, through the empty, dark market. Don’t stop when the drunks call you, the aggressive and the horny. They know where you come from. The factory passport is around your neck, and you still wear the pink headscarf you have to put on at work. Run when the men stagger towards you, run as fast as you can over the potholes, the puddles and the pits. Make sure you don’t trip. And even if you stumble, keep running.
These are the sentences that Tigist shuffles back and forth in her head as she walks home from the late shift.
It is 10.45 pm when Tigist, a girl of 18, her hair braided into thin plaits, gets off the factory bus. She is tired, she has never sewn so much as today. 150 trousers, that’s 300 trouser hems. 300 times carefully folding the end of the trouser leg, then setting a neat seam with the machine, first leg, second leg. For hours. Tigist has never sewn a whole pair of trousers, she can only do the hem. The trousers that Tigist and her colleagues sew will later hang in H&M shops in many countries around the world. Black, casual chic, 14.99 euros.
„Made in Ethiopia“ is written on the label, inside the waistband. It’s a pair of trousers that men can almost always wear, whether they’re going to work, university or on a date. That’s what makes them so practical, but Tigist doesn’t think about that. Just like most men in the shopping streets of New York, Berlin and Singapore don’t think about who might have sewn the hem of their trousers.
Walking next to Tigist is her friend, who also works in the factory. Together they hurry along the path through the darkness, past sheds of corrugated iron and wood.
of corrugated iron and wood. There is a streetlight up ahead, it is brighter there, then another. Then no more. Tigist now holds a cheap mobile phone in his hand, its display providing a strip of light.
Suddenly there is a noise. An outline between the trees. But this time it’s not drunks, just a couple of hyenas looking for scraps in the dark. Sometimes they come down from the mountains to the outskirts of the city at night.
Tigist and her friend reach a corrugated metal fence, they open a gate and cross a small courtyard, at the end of which is a flat stone house. In this house is a room with its own door, not big, six square metres much- easy. A few plates and pots are standing around, a water canister, a little firewood. There is a mattress on the floor, shared by three women, three seamstresses.
Plastic bags hang on the walls, they keep their possessions in them. It’s not much, a little soap, a little hair oil, clothes hang over a clothesline, so the room is already full. A tattered cloth in front of the window is to keep out the cold of the night. To cook, the women go to the courtyard, where there is a fireplace, and in a corner next to the house they can wash.
Tigist earns 1055 birr a month in the factory, the equivalent of 32.36 euros, for eight hours of work a day, six days a week, shift work, no holidays. Barely more than one euro a day. With this money she buys lentils and millet, sometimes a few vegetables and whatever else she needs to live. When the money is not enough, she borrows a few notes from the traders in her shed. Her room costs 200 birr a month, 6.14 euros. She is lucky. In the centre of Awassa she would have to pay twice as much.
Awassa has 300,000 inhabitants. Wealthier Ethiopians spend their holidays here. The town lies at an altitude of 1700 metres on a lake, the promenade is lined with cafés and fish restaurants. Monkeys do gymnastics in the tops of old trees. There are
There are clean, beautiful neighbourhoods in Awassa, for example the villa corner by the lake, and there are the settlements on the outskirts like the one where Tigist lives.
On the bare, poorly plastered walls in her room, the women have hung a few photocopied sheets of paper with lines from the Bible on them.
Jeremiah, chapter 40, verse 4: „And now, behold, I have loosed thee this day from the chains wherewith thy hands were bound.“
1 Corinthians, chapter 10, verse 12: „Therefore let him that thinketh he standeth see that he fall not.“
Tigist is now sitting in the room on the mattress. She has been talking about her life, in a low voice and careful words that suddenly seem very determined when she says that she wants one thing above all: to learn how to sew trousers, a whole pair of trousers, not just the hem on the legs.
Tigist says, „It’s better here than where I come from.“
The factory manager
So now he has landed in Africa. In this office at the very top of the factory, which he reaches morning after morning
morning after morning via a steel staircase. He has been here for a year: Ethiopia, Awassa Industrial Park. The factory halls stand in long rows, with lawns and freshly swept streets in between.
Inside, in the factory with the number 39, the sewing machines stand in long rows. When the manager steps out of his office to the railing and looks down into the hall, he sees hundreds of quietly whirring machines and behind them hundreds of pink headscarves. There are signs on the walls with instructions on how to wrap the scarves around the head correctly. The scarves are important to prevent the seamstresses‘ hair from getting caught in the machines.
Somewhere in one of the rows must sit Tigist, a small pink dot above a trouser hem. The manager doesn’t know her, how could he, with 1500 employees working for him, 97 percent are women.
Whether in China, in Vietnam, in Cambodia or in Bangladesh, textile companies like to hire women. Women have more dexterous hands. Women are content with less money. Women are not so quick to rebel.
The manager’s name is Kushaan Vijithananda, he is 47 years old and from Sri Lanka. When he was young, many garment companies closed their factories in Europe and reopened them in Sri Lanka because the wages of the seamstresses were lower there. There was no other industry in Sri Lanka, so Kushaan started working in the textile industry, that was 22 years ago. He became a manager, ran several factories, then wages went up in Sri Lanka too, and many companies moved to other Asian countries. Kushaan went to Bangladesh and built a factory there. Until wages went up in Bangladesh too. So now Kushaan is here, in Ethiopia, and who knows what will come next.
Kushaan Vijithananda, broad smile, affable manner, seems like someone who can quickly settle into the new. And he has to. „The industry is always on the move, it is always moving on,“ he says. And with it move managers, traders and representatives – the international elite of the clothing industry.
There is not a single Ethiopian among the managers of the industrial park in Awassa, but many Chinese, Indians, Turks, Americans, they celebrate the Chinese New Year and the Indian Holi festival, they play bridge and table tennis. Most of them live in a big dormitory right next to the industrial park, Kushaan didn’t want that. „In my free time, I don’t want to have the factory in front of me,“ he says in his office upstairs above the sewing machines. So he moved with his family to a villa by the lake.
There is not much going on in Awassa, Kushaan says. Sometimes he drives to the capital Addis Ababa to go to the cinema. He laughs his broad laugh. „275 kilometres just for a film.“
Once European and American companies moved to Asia. Now Asian companies are going to Africa. A headhunter poached manager Kushaan in Bangladesh and lured him to the Chinese company whose name is on a big sign outside the factory in Awassa: Indochine.
Indochine employs 11400 people worldwide, according to a glossy catalogue that Kushaan hands over. The company makes clothes for European and American brands, it operates factories in Sri Lanka, China, Cambodia, Myanmar, Vietnam and Ethiopia. The founder of Indochine, says Kushaan, is Indian. The management, however, is based in China. Despite the size of the company, there are hardly any entries about Indochine on the internet. Kushaan says with a smile that the management is „somewhat reserved“.
There are still not many textile factories in Ethiopia, and not many western clothing companies have their shirts and trousers made here. H&M and Tchibo are among them, as well as kik, the Phillips Van Heusen Group, which owns the brands Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger, and the VF Group with Wrangler, The North Face and Timberland. Kushaan’s task is to build up and expand the factory in Awassa. „By 2025, there should be 5000 sewing machines in operation here, one day even 7500,“ he says. With two-shift operation as at present, that would mean work for 15 000 seamstresses.
„Building factories is my passion,“ says Kushaan, adding that you can move up quickly in this industry and make a lot of money – „if you can handle the pressure“. This is a word Kushaan often uses when talking about his work: pressure. He speaks of the pressure of prices and figures, of turnover targets and profit requirements, he does not say „textile industry“ but „printing industry“.
It sounds as if Kushaan is in charge of a machine that is running at a breathtaking pace and he has to keep increasing the pressure without it blowing it apart.
Flags of many nations flutter in the wind in front of Addis Ababa’s Millennium Hall, people from all over the world squeeze through the security gates into the exhibition grounds. A group of Chinese businessmen, chain-smoking, the representative of H&M, a troop of Ethiopians, a Pakistani entrepreneur, a blonde woman with a wheeled suitcase. The Africa Fashion Week was announced on posters all over the city, now the visitors are pushing their way from stand to stand, most of the exhibitors are from China, they are textile manufacturers, but also suppliers of buttons and producers of sewing machines. Smiles everywhere, business cards, pats on the back, conversations about old customers and new markets.
Fasil Tadesse is in the middle of it all, always surrounded by a bunch of people, always talking. He speaks while walking through the aisles, he speaks while visiting an exhibition stand, he speaks while standing behind the lectern on top of the podium in the exhibition hall, to an audience of several hundred, where the president is about to speak. Tadesse’s topic is always the same: Ethiopia as a location and its strength.
Fasil Tadesse, moustache, smoky voice, is chairman of the Ethiopian Association of Textile and Garment Manufacturers, which suddenly reminds one of the United Nations.
American, Indian, Chinese, French, Turkish, Korean, Italian textile and garment companies – they are all now represented in the Ethiopian Textile Association, they are all thinking about having production in Ethiopia.
On another day, far from the hustle and bustle of the exhibition hall, Fasil welcomes Tadesse into his office, seated in a heavy leather chair, a man filled with success and confidence, culminating in a single sentence: „We will become the China of Africa!“
To understand the meaning of his words, one must recall for a moment the recent history of this continent.
As recently as the 1960s, when many African states gained independence from their former colonial powers, Africa, not Asia, seemed like the continent of the future. At that time, a Kenyan was on average wealthier than a South Korean. If the hopes had been fulfilled, an Ethiopian might today be setting up a textile factory in Sri Lanka. But things turned out differently. Asia rose, Africa fell. Foreign lenders like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund prescribed tough reforms for African governments. They were supposed to open their countries to the world market. However, the domestic companies could not prevail against international competition. Many went bankrupt, factories closed.
Today, most African countries concentrate on exporting raw materials and agricultural products. But coffee fields and copper mines do not offer enough jobs for millions of able-bodied people – one reason why so many make the long journey to Europe. What the continent needs is its own industry and investors who are willing to build it up. Take Ethiopia, for example.
The textile industry, says Fasil Tadesse in his office, is the key to economic development. It provides work for the masses.
When in the middle of the 18th century what is now called the industrial revolution began in Great Britain, it was indeed the textile industry that got things started. English manufacturers supplied trousers and shirts to America and India. Other countries followed the British example and more and more textile factories were built. The industrial revolution divided the earth into two parts, the rich and the poor countries, and the industrial societies into two classes, the workers who spent their lives in the factories and the owners of capital who owned the factories.
For centuries, people had worked in artisanal factories. When they sewed trousers, that meant they sewed the whole trousers, from the waistband to the hem. Not everyone could do that, you had to have learned the craft. But now, all of a sudden, it was no longer the human being that mattered, but the machine. The worker didn’t have to know anything, he just had to operate the machine, he was only responsible for a short step in a long production chain. A new idea was born: the factory.
The industrial revolution created appalling exploitation, but also unprecedented wealth. It gave birth to capitalism, but also to the labour movement and the welfare state, which in the end made workers richer than craftsmen had ever been.
Virtually every wealthy country in the world went down this path of industrialisation at some point, and it was usually the textile industry that started it all. The most recent and successful example is China.
example is China. Until recently, six out of ten garments on the world market came from this one country. Millions of people had moved from the vast empire to the textile factories of southern China to work. They worked overtime for starvation wages, there were workers who were missing a finger or even the whole hand. Production accidents for which no one had compensated them. People threw themselves off factory roofs because they didn’t get paid for months or simply couldn’t take the drudgery any more.
China became the workbench of the world, soon producing not only shirts and trousers, but also children’s toys and kitchen appliances, mobile phones and flat screens. At some point, many factories ran out of workers due to the one-child policy, wages rose and workers learned to organise despite all the restrictions. That was the moment when the textile industry started looking for new places to produce.
In the factory, Tigist sits at her place behind the machine. In front of her is a pile of black men’s trousers for H&M. Tigist sews, left leg, right leg, left leg, right leg.
The sewing machine scared Tigist at first. It was so fast, so unmanageable. „It just kept running, it ran and ran, it didn’t stop at all, it sewed far beyond the trousers,“ says Tigist. Now, after four months, she has learned to tame the machine. She has also learned to follow the rules that apply in the factory. The foremen have drummed them into the seamstresses, over and over again; Tigist can recite them by heart without faltering even once.
Don’t talk to the other seamstresses. Don’t be late. If you are late four times, you will be expelled.
Don’t get sick. For every day you are absent, 135 Birr are deducted from your wages, which is the equivalent of 4.14 Euros. And you only earn 35 birr a day. You are only excused if you can show a doctor’s certificate, but then you have to go to hospital. That costs 100 birr just for admission, and then you still don’t have any medicine.
Be careful not to get a needle in your flesh.
If it does, sit tight. Wait until someone comes and bandages your wound.
You must not leave your place in the production line, no matter how bad you feel.
Production must not be stopped. Sew fast.
Don’t think about anything else.
These are the rules.
Left leg. Right leg. Next trousers. Whenever Tigist has sewn seven trouser hems, the quality manager comes to her table. He checks the seams. If he is satisfied, he hangs a cardboard sign with a green smiling face on Tigist’s sewing machine.
If he finds one mistake, she gets a yellow face that is not smiling. If he finds two or more mistakes, she gets a red face that looks very unhappy. Whoever has too many red faces is schooled again. Whoever still can’t do it then is kicked out.
Of the 14.99 euros that H&M charges for the trousers in its shops, about 80 cents go to the Indochine company. About 1 cent per pair of trousers ends up at Tigist.
The factory manager
Sometimes the manager, Kushaan, stands at the railing above the factory floor, looks down at the pink headscarves and considers how much he can charge the women. It is a fine balance. If he puts too little pressure on the seamstresses, his factory produces too few trousers. If he puts too much pressure on them, the women can’t do the work, they make mistakes, they get sick, they stay at home. Then production comes to a standstill.
Even now, seamstresses give up every week, either because they are exhausted or because the wages are too low. But Kushaan can still replace them quickly. Production continues.
Kushaan says not every woman is suitable for work in the factory. He says his trainers had to start with the essentials: „Hygiene, checking in and out, sitting for eight hours.“ The women would not have known all that. Most of them came directly from agriculture. „Farmers never work against the clock,“ says Kushaan. „They get up when they want and go to bed when they want, but here we work against the clock.“
He says that if he adds up everything, the training, the wages, the costs for the factory bus, then a seamstress costs him the equivalent of 60 euros a month, whereas in Bangladesh it is 110 euros, almost twice as much. But the seamstresses in Bangladesh are almost three times as efficient.
If Kushaan wants to succeed, if he wants to achieve what the headhunters brought him to Indochine for, he has to increase efficiency, as quickly as possible. He says textile managers from Sri Lanka have a good reputation when it comes to getting a factory up and running.
In two months, 30,000 pairs of trousers have to be ready for H&M.
Fasil Tadesse says Ethiopia’s biggest locational advantage is its labour force. They are so cheap. Ethiopia has 100 million inhabitants, second in Africa. Most people are young, the population grows by two to three million every year. And everyone who can work somehow competes with each other for jobs. So they offer their labour for little money. Or for even less.
Tadesse says, „Salaries will continue to be very competitive for the next 15 to 20 years.“
Advantage number two: „We have a very stable government,“ says Tadesse. And this government is doing everything to strengthen Ethiopian industry, he says. With new vocational schools and new universities, with new hospitals and new health stations. And a new railway connection to the port of the neighbouring country Djibouti. Ethiopia has no access to the sea. The textile factories need fabrics, threads, buttons, zips. All this enters the country via Djibouti.
The government that Tadesse praises as „stable“ is in fact an authoritarian regime that declared after the 2015 parliamentary elections that it had received 99 percent of the votes. Since then, not a single opposition member has been in parliament. Allegedly, every fifth Ethiopian works for the secret service, people here tell each other. So the country already has a lot in common with the great role model China.
The Chinese appreciate that: China is building roads, industrial parks and railway lines in Ethiopia. China has built the headquarters of the African Union in Addis Ababa. China grants the Ethiopian government many loans.
The factory manager
A manager who wants to make his workers work faster, better, does not necessarily have to increase the pressure. Theoretically, he could also increase wages, he could offer special payments as additional motivation. Kushaan says he cares about the rights of all employees, he wants to be fair to everyone, but higher salaries are not planned. „We are taking a joint approach with the government on this.“
In a country with less authoritarian rule than Ethiopia, the government would have nothing to do with wage development. Unions would fight for better wages, and women workers might go on strike. But in Ethiopia, even the unions are under government control. And the government does not want wages to rise.
It is a morning before the late shift. Tigist is sitting in a café with two colleagues, a young woman and a young man, plastic chairs, plastic table, a parasol. The woman is a seamstress in the factory, like them. The man is the foreman who supervises them. This is also the case in almost all textile factories, almost everywhere in the world: women sit at the sewing machines. The supervisors are usually men.
One of the foreman’s tasks is to make sure that the seamstresses reach the targets. If the women sew too slowly, the sub-managers shout at the foremen. Like the factory manager Kushaan, the sub-managers are also from Sri Lanka.
When the seamstresses want to leave the factory at the end of their shift, they have to stand in a long queue. They are then checked to make sure they do not steal any clothes. Only the other day, says the foreman in the café, he observed how one of the sub-managers grabbed a seamstress by the neck who was not standing properly in the queue and pushed her back.
The foreman says that when the sub-managers shouted at them, the foremen, they meant, „Keep up the pressure!“
And so the foremen would then shout at the seamstresses.
In the beginning, the foreman says, most of the women workers in the factory came from the city. Now, however, almost no one in Awassa is willing to do the work for that wage.
Tigist has been silent for a long time during this conversation in the café. But now she weighs her head. Tigist, who earns the equivalent of barely more than one euro a day, tries to explain why she is so happy to work in the factory.
Tigist is not from the city, she comes from the countryside, from a village 40 kilometres from Awassa. Her parents are farmers, they grow maize, beans, coffee and ornamental bananas, they have a few sheep and goats. It is just enough to feed the nine children. And if Tigist had stayed in the village, she probably would have continued this life, what else could she do?
But Tigist did not stay.
She says in a firm voice, „I never wanted to be like them. When you are a girl, they force you to marry early. Sometimes as early as twelve. That’s not allowed, but they have to do it anyway. And before they’ve ever had a life of their own, they have children.“
A friend told Tigist about the industrial park in town, about the factories and the work on the sewing machines. Tigist decided to go.
Tigist says of course she would like to have a higher wage. But something else is much more important: that she earns money at all. Her own money, for the first time in her life. Life in the city is much better than life in the country, she says. She has more freedom now. She can spend her day off the way she wants to.
What does that mean? Tigist giggles and says nothing for a long time. „On Sundays I go to church. And afterwards sometimes I go for a walk. Later we have to wash our clothes.“
Manager Kushaan had said that the textile industry has changed gender relations in all countries. As soon as a woman has purchasing power, her status changes. Therefore, when looking for new female workers, they advertise with a dream: the emancipated African woman.
Even after the industrial revolution, millions of people lived a life far from capitalism for many decades. The market economy was slow to spread, and half the continents tried other, mostly socialist, ways. Today, however, the world market is almost everywhere, it reaches into the Sahara and the Amazon basin, it has taken over the Arctic and the Himalayas. This makes it increasingly difficult for poor countries to follow an alternative path of development. A huge country like China is powerful enough to stretch the rules of the game in its favour, at least to some extent. Foreign investors, for example, knew that the Chinese would copy their products. The investors came anyway.
Ethiopia cannot do that. There are weak and strong players in the world market, and some are getting stronger. The big companies, for example, are constantly acquiring new brands and merging into even bigger groups. They decide where to have their products manufactured. They decide where jobs are created and where they disappear.
Ethiopia may indeed become the China of Africa, as the functionary Fasil Tadesse imagines. But Ethiopia may also end up like another country whose government once thought it had found the path to wealth when the first textile companies opened in its capital. Today, there are thousands of companies in Bangladesh producing garments for western corporations. But the country and the seamstresses are still poor. Bangladesh has not managed to take the next step and enter the production of higher quality products. Maybe because the government failed to attract investors. Maybe because the investors were not interested in this insignificant country.
Sometimes, at the end of the shift, Tigist goes to the other seamstresses and asks to be shown how to sew the remaining parts of a pair of trousers. The waistband, the pockets, the inner and outer side seams. „Then I practise,“ says Tigist. Eventually, she will have scraped together enough money. And then she will start a small business, without a manager, without workers yelling at her. She will be her own boss, with her own little sewing shop. A chair, a table, a sewing machine.
The factory manager
One last question for the manager Kushaan, who says that building factories is his passion. Could robots one day sew the hems of trousers here, in this hall, instead of hundreds of women? Robots that make no mistakes and demand no wages? Robots that would end the endless search for a new, cheaper location forever?
Kushaan first shakes his head, then lingers for a while. He looks at the sewing machines and the seamstresses, at the hundreds of pink dots down in the factory. He smiles and says: „That would be just like in a film … But why not?