It’s been two years since Yitbarek Tayachew fell from a building. The day he fell had started unremarkable: he had gone to work on one of the thousands of construction sites in Bahir Dar, capital of Amhara Regional State. The building was almost near completion and he had climbed up on the scaffolding, no helmet, no gloves, no safety shoes, just like all the other days. That day, he slipped and fell from the third floor.
“I was badly injured on my head and my arms,” he said. “I wasn’t using any safety equipment because that was just how we did work.”
His employer covered his expenses and Yitbarek received 25,000 Birr after negotiating his compensation through a mediator.
“I could have gotten a better settlement if I went to court,” he said. “But it would have taken me a long time and I needed the money.”
Providing safety equipment like helmets, safety glasses, welding goggles, masks, gloves, and safety shoes along with an emergency aid kit are legally required from construction sites. Workplace safety, also known as occupational safety and health, has been given recognition on paper in Ethiopia as far back as 1920 and an implementing regulation of the law first came out in 1940. But the issues, a hundred years later, are far from being resolved. In Bahir Dar, they have escalated in the past year.
In 2020, three people lost their lives and over 440 were reported to have been injured while on work, according to the region’s Labor and Skills Bureau. Last year, that number more than doubled with a reported 736 people experiencing workplace injuries.
While a new labor law came into effect in 2019, replacing the one that had been in place for 16 years, the implementation of certain provisions, seems stuck in the same place This legal change brought with it more protection for employees, including the establishment of a wage board, even though the government has yet to approve a minimum wage.
Minimum working age was raised from 14 to 15, and paternity leave was introduced into the country's legal scene. The proclamation, as it relates to occupational safety, went a step further and gave the recently restructured Ministry of Labor and Skills, the responsibility of establishing a committee for occupational safety and health. Yet implementation faces the same struggles; lack of training, inspection, and commitment from employers and the government
“We don’t have any safety equipment given to us,” said Abebe Alemu, 35, another construction worker in the city. It was a matter of good luck that had saved him from injuries in his ten years of work.
“I remember a labor inspector came to our site one time,” he said. “But they didn’t do anything. No one takes them seriously.”
Without anyone enforcing the requirement, employers are free to cut additional costs on buying safety gear and appointing a respective person to oversee safety at construction sites. Most employees are also unaware of the safety standards in place.
The construction industry is growing in Bahir Dar, like the rest of the country. In 2019, the city administration gave over 40,000 permits for the construction of residential houses alone. But an observation across Bahir Dar, and the people in the industry that Addis Zeybe spoke with show that corresponding safety measures are falling far behind.
The main issue is that there aren’t enough inspectors in the city according to the regional occupational safety and health expert, Azeze Abebe. There are two inspectors in charge of overseeing this for the city in a sector that employs over 15,000 workers.
“Anyone passing by a construction site can see that it is a very dangerous work environment,” said Azeze. “Every site needs to have a proper and qualified person but that’s not the case.”
The city’s administration cites an insufficient budget to implement these laws as the reason that construction sites in the city are left to their own devices. Furthermore, the assigned labor inspectors who are expected to take the issue to court after giving an initial warning to employers are simply not up to the task.
The process of taking the issue to court and following the case is more than what they are willing to do according to Zewdu Desalegn, Employment Team Leader in the City’s Administration.
“There’s no interest or commitment to follow it up,” said Zewdu.
The city’s Labor Bureau acknowledges there needs to be more effort toward raising awareness on occupational health and safety, yet there seems no solid plan ahead to solve this.
For the majority of construction workers who make a few hundred Birr a day, at times risking their lives, the priorities lie in making ends meet.