Tucked away in a modest neighbourhood in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Meseret Teklewolde wakes up every day at sunrise in her studio apartment, alongside her 5-year-old twins on the same single mattress. She hurries to cook breakfast, bathe and dress her kids– all with one crutch under each arm. 

Teklewolde, a single mother and disabled, accompanies her kids to school every morning. She later heads towards the Hager Tibebe factory, where she has been in charge of ironing and folding ready-made garments for the past five years. 
When Covid 19 struck, in early 2020, her one source of income became instantly jeopardized. The collapse of garment sales, and the factories’ consequent difficulty retaining employees, sparked an immediate fear:
“That the factory would go bankrupt. That I would not be able to feed my kids and pay my rent,” Teklewolde says. “We were living in anguish.”

Teklewolde is one of 157 garment workers at the Hager Tibebe factory, where 80 percent are women and nearly 70 percent of all personnel have a disability. The factory was initially designed and supported by the Ethiopian government to favour and hire people with disabilities. The business was later privatized, and owners continued the trend of helping workers with a disadvantage. 

“Most of us are single moms. We cover the cost of education for our children and house rent costs,” she explains.

Without outside help, workplaces like Teklewode’s had little hope of holding on to their staff. From 2020 and 2021, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) implemented an income support programme — funded by the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) — in seven countries: Lao PDR, Indonesia, Cambodia, Bangladesh, Madagascar, Vietnam, and Ethiopia.

By ensuring business continuity, the programme aimed to reduce the harsh economic impacts of the pandemic on the livelihood of the garment and textile workers. The goal was to offer income support that would retain jobs, and help garment and textile workers affected by COVID-19 to meet their needs. 

Social dialogue with governments and local labour unions became paramount in the design and implementation of the program in line with ILO social security standards – which would serve as a foundation for future national social protection systems development. 

“The ILO was able to use its international social security standards to build the emergency solutions.” Valerie Schmitt, Deputy Director in the ILO Social Protection Department, says. 

In April 2021, the ILO and the Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs (MOLSA) with support from the BMZ launched a temporary job retention programme that aimed at reducing the vulnerability of textile and garment sector workers and enterprises to the direct and indirect socio-economic impacts of COVID-19. Eligible enterprises registered for the programme using a web portal. The programme covered 14,366 workers from 46 domestic factories by covering 5 months of workers’ salaries from August to December 2021.

As a requirement, beneficiary factories needed to commit to retaining workers for the duration of the programme and for a subsequent five months. Workers received their net salary directly, while their income taxes and social security contributions were transferred to the tax authority and the Private Organizations Employees’ Social Security Agency (POESSA).

The US$4.5 million initiative – funded by BMZ, and developed with technical support from ILO – was officially launched in Ethiopia with MOLSA and social partners in February 2021. Business kept running at the Hager Tibebe factory – despite the drop in sales, health risks, and lockdowns. The programme planned to secure Teckewolde’s for five months. 

“We kept going to the factory, as the work was the only livelihood and means of income for us,” Teckewolde says, as she irons a dress in a small corner of the factory. She and her family survive pay check to pay check. No salary one month, would have meant no pay and resorting to negative coping mechanisms – reduced meals, pulling her children out of school, or other forms of hazardous work. 

“I would have been reduced to begging” Tecklewolde says while she counts the coins for her daily bus ride home. 

The salary payment system in the Hager Tibebe factory and the other 28 beneficiary factories also changed as a result of the income support program –, which came as something of a paradigm shift for the workers, who as part of the program, got their salaries via bank transfers instead of cash. This new mechanism exposed most of the garment workers to new financial technologies – such as ATM services.
“Before, we were not saving our earnings, just paying debts and taking the rest home. The new program has helped us to start saving,” Teklewolde says. 

The job retention programme-built synergies with other ILO projects developing in Ethiopia’s national social protection system. The call to action in the global garment industry, as well as the social protection and public finance management programme funded by the European Union aim to provide long-term sustainable solutions through fostering social dialogue, strengthening administrative capacity, and costing an unemployment insurance system, so that workers like Teklewolde can have immediate access to unemployment benefits in the event of future covariate and idiosyncratic shocks.

“My dream is to own a home one day, where my children can have a proper room to sleep and study,” Tecklewolde says as she steps back into her 12 m2 rented dwelling. “In parallel to my work, I am studying to obtain a college degree in accounting, which will provide more income and a better future to my twins.”

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