Ethiopia: The next big destination for the textile industry

For a long time now, Asian countries like India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka have been hailed as super-cheap production locations for the textile industry.
But in recent years, even lower-wage countries have started moving into the market — Haiti, Cambodia, Myanmar and now Ethiopia.
Many companies in the “old” textile markets now also have bases in these new competing countries.
Chinese and Turkish firms have already moved into Ethiopia, for example, as have textile companies from India and Bangladesh whose wares are destined for Europe.
One of them is the Indian company Jay Jay, which employs some 70,000 workers in its old production sites in southern India, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh.
Jay Jay has been operating for the past two years in Ethiopia, where the monthly wage for a trained textile worker is around $55 a month — lower than in Bangladesh.
The company employs some 1,800 people in Ethiopia, and the numbers are rising.
The Jay Jay factory is located in the industrial park Bole Lemi, just outside of the capital Addis Ababa.
The modern production hall is filled with a deafening roar, with machinery clattering and foremen shouting orders above the din.
A gong sounds for the midday break.
In the factory kitchen, the floor has been mopped clean and the air smells of vegetables, spicy sauce and leavened bread.
The meal for the seamstresses and cutters is free.
More than 300 women per shift work at the factory, standing at high tables.
For eight hours a day, they sew together tiny baby grows and rompers made from cotton.
Most of the baby wear that is made here will be shipped to the US and Europe.
The factory director’s name card bears the name “S Balasubramaniyam” — unpronounceable for the Ethiopian women toiling away in the factory.
Ethiopia has a population of about 100 million and ranks among the poorest countries in the world.
In addition to the current 50,000 employees in the textile sector, the government is hoping to create a further 350,000 jobs over the next four years.
The country has no access to the sea, but it does offer a certain degree of political stability compared with most of its neighbours in the Horn of Africa.
“We send our products meant for export to the port of Djibouti,” the factory director says.
Among the customers of the company, which was founded in 1971 in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, is the Swedish clothing giant H&M.
H&M also obtains goods from Ethiopia via other suppliers, such as the Bangladeshi firm DBL Group.
The textile industry in Bangladesh is associated not only with low wages, but also with brutal working conditions, fires, and above all the collapse of the Rana Plaza textile factory in 2013, which killed 1,138 workers.
The catastrophe was the catalyst for various initiatives to protect textile sector workers.
One such initiative was that of German Development Aid Minister Gerd Mueller to set up a textile industry alliance focusing on social standards and environmental protection.
“In Bangladesh we learned a horrible lesson, one that we must not repeat,” says Tobias Fisher, H&M’s Manager in Ethiopia.
His company subscribes to the goals of the German textiles alliance, which include jointly improving conditions in the producing countries.
Fisher adds that another goal is to improve the qualifications of the seamstresses, managers and foremen.
Yenewark Tesfa, 22, has wrapped a colourful cloth around her hair.
The slender Ethiopian woman is wearing a necklace with a silver-coloured cross.
She is happy to have found work at Jay Jay, though she admits “the money isn’t enough.” Her dream is to have her own small shop. Until that day — perhaps — arrives, she will continue to sew baby clothes from Indian cotton for toddlers in far away Europe and America. — dpa