RENEW Strategies

COVID-19 in Ethiopia: The Workplace Response Tripartite Protocol that Forgot the Role of the Third Actor

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Tsegamlak Solomon
| April 15, 2020

Since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, the government of Ethiopia, led by PM Abiy Ahmed, has been taking many different measures to contain the effect of the pandemic on human health and the economy. These efforts were strengthened when the first coronavirus case was reported in Ethiopia on March 13, 2020. The efforts have not been limited to Ethiopia. PM Abiy’s government has also been spearheading the response for all of Africa. PM Abiy’s request of $150 billion to the members of the G20 and securing continental support from the Jack Ma Foundation are the major efforts to mention. Read his letter to the Financial Times: LINK. Internally, several efforts have been made to contain the spread of the disease and save more lives. The government has also been taking measures to mitigate the social and economic impact of the pandemic.

As part of the latter measure, the Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs (MoLSA) issued the COVID-19 Workplace Response Protocol (Protocol). As could be understood from the preamble, the Protocol is sourced from the International Labour Organization’s (ILO) Guideline on how to respond and manage natural and manmade crises in the workplace.

The Protocol underlines the need to take logical, participatory legal and administrative measures with proactive tripartite consultations and direction. Consistent with the general aim, the Protocol has two major objectives. The first objective is to protect workplace actors from contracting COVID-19. In line with this objective, the Protocol outlines the basic workplace preventive measures that should be taken by employers, workers and safety officers.
From the employer’s perspective, the Protocol requires employers to take certain measures like ensuring the provision of sanitary materials, eliminating congestion in workers’ transportation service and making sure social distancing is maintained. Similarly, workers are required to comply with these protective measures provided by the employer and take the responsibility of reporting workplace symptoms and cases to the appropriate body, among others.

The second objective of the Protocol, and the focus of this blog, aims to mitigate the impact of the pandemic on (1) the national economy, (2) the sustainability of enterprises, and (3) the social and economic situation and livelihood of workers. In order to address these challenges, the Protocol proposes certain administrative and legal measures that need to be taken step by step. In effect, the Protocol restricts employers from laying off employees as a result of this pandemic.

As could be understood from the Protocol, with the proposed administrative and legal measures, the Protocol provides what steps an employer should take in order to ensure workers’ social security. Similar to what has been provided in the ILO guideline, the Protocol emphasizes the need to provide social protection for workers, who could be affected during this crisis.

However, in its adoption, the Protocol has left out, what seems to be intentionally, certain parts of the ILO guideline. Whereas the guideline by the ILO is framed as a tripartite protocol between the government, employers and workers, the Protocol by the Ministry was issued in a form of an order for workers and employers to comply with. The Protocol provides the administrative and legal measures that employers and workers should avail themselves of. However, it doesn’t state what the role of the government should be. It totally imposes the responsibility of ensuring workers’ social protection on employers. In contrast, the ILO guideline provides for the need to protect employment and income, but it also provides that this can only be done with the combined efforts of workers, employers and the government.

As per the ILO guideline, in these combined efforts, the government needs to take the lion’s share. Among others, the government is expected to stimulate the economy and labor demand. This is done by adopting active fiscal policies, particularly social protection measures such as unemployment benefits, along with public investment and tax relief for low-income earners and MSMEs. The government also needs to adopt accommodative monetary policies like interest rate reductions, reserve rate relaxations and targeted liquidity provisions. Because the crisis hits certain sectors particularly hard, like aviation, tourism and hospitality, and MSMEs in general, targeted lending financial support is required for these segments of the economy.

These measures should not be left for a single government ministry. They require the commitment of the government in general. The issue is not only about determining what the relationship between employers and workers should be, but it is also about making sure that the country’s economy survives this crisis with minimal effect. We can only do that with carefully calculated policy decisions, which should involve all branches of the government. Protocols such as the one issued by MoLSA will not be able to address all those issues and could do more harm than good.

In all these efforts, the government should focus on short-term workers social security and also long-term businesses continuity. It is only the balance of these two that can ensure sustainable social protection. This could be done by availing tax reliefs, providing credit facilities and loosening certain regulatory barriers imposed on employers. Otherwise, with the current bilateral arrangement between employers and workers, the government might ensure short-term social security but that would be at the cost of the national economy in general and businesses continuity in particular.

Considering the current status of the country, the government of Ethiopia might not be able to provide all of the recommended support mechanisms by itself; however, this should undoubtedly be one of the areas where it seeks support of its international partners. This will require a huge investment, but it is something that needs to be done for the revival of the economy after the impending economic crisis.

Uniform, large-scale, and coordinated policy measures are needed at times like this to save the economy. Making employers shoulder the burden of social protection is not a sustainable approach to workers’ social security. In fact, such uncoordinated measures could result in the death of hundreds of companies, especially MSMEs that cannot shoulder this responsibility for long. This unquestionably will result in a long-term social security crisis and it could take much time for the country’s economy to revive after the COVID-19 crisis is over.


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