ICES20: Development and Labour in the Horn of Africa


Development and Labour in the Horn of Africa: Outlining the Contours of a Key Relationship

by Camille Pellerin (London School of Economics)

Camille Pellerin, PhD candidate in development studies at the London School of Economics  and associated researcher at the French Center for Ethiopian Studies (CFEE) and Andreas Admasie PhD, regional representative of the International Institute of Social History of Amsterdam, involved in a joint project on the Dire Dawa Railway together with the CFEE and Dire Dawa University, have participated in a panel on industrial relations in the Horn at ICES 20.

The panel, “Development and Labour in the Horn of Africa: Outlining the Contours of a Key Relationship”, was organised by Stefano Bellucci, International Institute of Social History of Amsterdam and Leiden University and Andreas Admasie, International Institute of Social History of Amsterdam, as part of a bigger effort to build a network of scholars working on the topic. Studying the role of labour in development processes in the Horn both from a historical and a contemporary perspective, the panel brought together scholars from different disciplines in social sciences, including political sciences, history, development studies and anthropology. Particular focus was given to developments in Ethiopia, with all participants tying their research into this specific country case. The panel aimed at reversing the trend of researching labour as a factor of production, by putting labour at the heart of discussions about development processes and by investigating its role as a social and political actor.

Extant research on the political economy of late development has revealed the central role that labour has played in development processes. To “catch-up” with developed countries, late developers have often promoted industrialisation through investment in labour intensive sectors like agroindustry and light manufacturing. Countries have used cheap labour costs to attract FDI and promote local investment, in order to reach international-competitiveness and orient their economies towards export. In their strive for accelerated development, governments have often ranked workers’ rights, decent working conditions and workplace health and safety as secondary to industrialisation and economic growth, which has led to increased pressures on the conditions of labour. Building on the approach of late developers and starting from the premise that labour constitutes an input into development processes, existing literature on labour has often investigated it as an object, a factor for production, and failed to analyse it as a subject and an actor in its own right and to reflect on its role in socioeconomic and political transformation processes.

The papers presented covered the period from 1890 to 2018, starting with the investigation of labour issues under Italian colonialism in the Horn, reflecting on labour’s political role in the Ethiopian revolution in the 1960s and ending with investigating the role of labour in Ethiopia’s contemporary political economy.

Findings from the first set of papers demonstrated how labour policies put in place during the Italian military occupation in the Horn made their impact felt beyond the immediate period of Italian rule. Focusing on the study of the Ethiopian case, papers revealed that, the emerging labour relations differed from the feudal mode of production of the imperial Ethiopia in which workers did not own their means of production. Instead, the agency of Italian labour migrants working in the colonies was key in shaping the new labour regimes. Moreover, papers showed that the integration of workers originating from Horn into the colonial enterprises also shaped industrial relations. Italian recruitment practices into the military were taken as an example of how transnational mobility affected labour relations. Together the papers shed light on the historical development of industrial relations, demonstrating that it is key to understand contemporary developments in the sector.

A second set of papers studied the role of labour in the Ethiopian political economy from 1960 to 2018, including discussions of the Ethiopian labour movement and the role of trade unions within it. While state-led development projects have been espoused by all Ethiopian governments over the last half-century and more, the role and position of labour within these projects has been the subject of sharp revisions. In recent times, both the position of labour and the agency of workers in shaping the developmental project has been reduced to that of a mere factor of production. In academia too, most scholarship on labour has focused on productivity levels, failing to account for labour’s political and social dimension. The papers revisited the past orientation and position of Ethiopian labour, to reframe a discussion on the agency of workers in shaping the political economy and its own position within it. The papers questioned previous research that portrayed labour as co-opted and dominated by the regimes in power, revealing for example that the integration of trade unions into state structures did not cause a complete transformation of their organisational character, opened the possibility for negotiations and bore seeds for subversion of power structures. Tracing the development of state-labour relations over time, the papers indicated the development of a new wave of mobilisation of labour since the end of 2017, both in the form of strikes and trade union activism.

A final set of papers shed light on how economic development processes in Ethiopia since 1991 have shaped the role of labour in the political economy, instead of focusing on  how these processes were shaped by labour. Papers for example explored the role of women in the economy, demonstrating that recent development processes have operated in favour of men as a gender and to the disadvantage of women as a gender. Instead of empowering women, the way women have been integrated into labour markets meant that they remained trapped in low skilled jobs, with little influence on decision-making processes. Moreover, papers demonstrated that the recent focus on light manufacturing in Ethiopia has led to an approach to labour as a key factor in enterprise development. Human resource development has become a prime concern for companies, with a variety of different approaches being adopted depending on the respective business size. Together these papers showed, that workers’ rights have been subordinated to the needs of the Ethiopian state and enterprises and have been treated as inputs into production processes, rather than agents in their own right.

Investigating the role of labour in the Horn since the late 19th century, and more specifically in Ethiopia since 1890, papers in this panel demonstrated that workers have been a key force behind both economic and political development processes. Workers have shaped industrial relations and have been key actors in political transition periods for over a century. Since 1991, the role of labour in the Ethiopian economy has been particularly pronounced due to the fact that the acting government, following the example of the Asian Tigers, has increasingly focused on industrialisation through the promotion of labour intensive sectors, such as agroindustry and light manufacturing. While at the centre of recent development processes, the pressures on the conditions of labour have been increasing, as the development strategy has been based on the exploitation of cheap labour. Comparing current with historical developments of labour movements in Ethiopia, the joint findings of the panel demonstrated that there is reason to believe that the harsh conditions under which workers have entered the formal labour force have recently provoked mobilisation and the emergence of a new labour movement. The findings of the panel helped filling a gap in the scholarly literature, that has treated labour as a merely factor of production, not as a social force and a subjective, constituent part to the developmental process.

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