Section 7. Worker Rights
a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining
The constitution and law provide workers, except for civil servants and certain categories of workers primarily in the public sector, with the right to form and join unions, conduct legal strikes, and bargain collectively. Meanwhile, other provisions and laws severely restrict or excessively regulate these rights. The law specifically prohibits managerial employees, teachers, health-care workers, judges, prosecutors, security-service workers, domestic workers, and seasonal agricultural workers from organizing unions. Despite the law prohibiting antiunion discrimination, unions reported employers terminated union activists. The law requires employers guilty of antiunion discrimination to reinstate workers dismissed for union activities and generally did so. The law prohibits retribution against strikers, but authorities arrested nine air traffic controllers for striking. The government did not effectively enforce applicable laws, and penalties were not sufficient to deter violations.
A minimum of 10 workers are required to form a union. While the law provides all unions with the right to register, the government may refuse to register trade unions that do not meet its registration requirements. One possible rationale for refusal is the nonpolitical criminal conviction of the union’s leader within the previous 10 years, but there were no reports of a refused registration on this basis. The government may unilaterally cancel the registration of a union. Workers may not join more than one trade union per employment. The law stipulates a trade union organization may not act in an overtly political manner. The law allows administrative authorities to seek recourse via court actions to cancel union registration for engaging in prohibited activities, such as political action.
Other laws and regulations that explicitly or potentially infringe upon workers’ rights to associate freely and to organize include the CSO law. The International Labor Organization (ILO) Committee of Experts on the Application of Conventions and Recommendations noted the CSO law gives the government power to interfere in the right of workers to organize, including through the suppression of registration, internal administration, and the dissolution of organizations. For example, the law requires that labor unions’ internal administration follow certain procedures that diminish their autonomy. Two-thirds of union members belonged to organizations affiliated with the government-controlled Confederation of Ethiopian Trade Unions. The National Teachers Union remained unregistered.
While the law recognizes the right to collective bargaining, this right was severely restricted under the law. Negotiations aimed at amending or replacing a collectively bargained agreement must take place within three months of its expiration; otherwise, the prior provisions on wages and other benefits cease to apply. The law restricts enterprise unions to negotiating wages only at the plant level. Civil servants, including public school teachers, have the right to establish and join professional associations created by the employees but may not bargain collectively. Arbitration procedures in the public sector are more restrictive than in the private sector. The law does not provide for effective and adequate sanctions against acts of interference by other agents in the establishment, functioning, or administration of either workers’ or employers’ organizations. Unions in the formal industrial sector made some efforts to enforce labor regulations.
Although the constitution and law provide workers with the right to strike to protect their interests, the law contains detailed provisions prescribing extremely complex and time-consuming formalities that make legal strike actions prohibitively difficult. The law requires aggrieved workers to attempt to reconcile with employers before striking and includes a lengthy dispute settlement process. These provisions apply equally to an employer’s right to lock workers out. For an authorized strike, two-thirds of the workers concerned must support such action. If not referred to a court or labor relations board, the union retains the right to strike without resorting to either of these options, provided they give at least 10 days’ notice to the other party and the Labor Ministry and make efforts at reconciliation.
The law also prohibits strikes by workers who provide essential services, including air transport and urban bus services, electric power suppliers, gasoline station personnel, hospital and pharmacy personnel, firefighters, telecommunications personnel, and urban sanitary workers. The list of essential services goes beyond the ILO definition of essential services. The law prohibits retribution against strikers, but it also provides for civil or criminal penalties against unions and workers convicted of committing unauthorized strike actions. Violation of this procedure is an offense punishable with a fine not exceeding 1,200 birr ($43) if committed by a union or of 300 birr ($11) if committed by an individual worker. If the provisions of the penal code prescribe more severe penalties, the punishment codified in the penal code becomes applicable. Any public servant who goes on strike, who urges others to go on strike, or who fails to carry out his/her duties in a proper manner, to the prejudice of state, public, or private interest, is subject to imprisonment that involves an obligation to perform labor.
The informal labor sector, including domestic workers and seasonal agricultural workers, was not unionized or protected by labor laws. The law defines workers as persons in an employment relationship. Lack of adequate staffing prevented the government from effectively enforcing applicable laws for those sectors protected by law. Court procedures were often subject to lengthy delays and appeals. Labor officials reported that high unemployment, fear of retribution, and long delays in hearing labor cases deterred workers from participating in strikes or other labor actions. The ILO was critical of the government’s use of the antiterrorism law to punish organizers or labor leaders.
Although rarely reported, antiunion activities occurred. There were media reports that some major foreign investors generally did not allow workers to form unions, often transferred or dismissed union leaders, and intimidated and pressured members to leave unions. Lawsuits alleging unlawful dismissal often took years to resolve because of case backlogs in the courts.