Well-being, Women and Work in Ethiopia:

Creating synergies between SDGs 3, 5 and 8 through Foreign Direct Investment (The “3WE” project)

The 3WE project (2019 – 2023) aims to contribute to a better understanding of the role of employment context on wellbeing in the Global South by assessing female workers’ everyday experiences and employment trajectories. It does this by comparing the employment conditions and impact on wellbeing in two FDI-intensive and largely female-staffed industries in Ethiopia—horticulture and apparel manufacturing. It innovates by focusing on female workers’ processual well-being.

The past decade has seen an influx of foreign direct investment (FDI) in countries in the Global South, particularly in Africa. This influx is often highly welcomed by recipient countries, where it is believed to alleviate poverty and generate job opportunities (particularly for women). However, evidence supporting this claim has been mixed, raising questions about how to make FDI a greater contributor to human development. Well-managed FDI can contribute to poverty alleviation, yet the resulting industrialisation and economic growth may bring about complex social processes such as large-scale migration and the erosion of gender norms. In addition, jobs created in developing economies through FDI firms are reported to be of low quality and with poor employment conditions where employees, particularly women, are often exposed to long hours in labour intensive and low paying jobs. Such working conditions affect women’s physical and psychological well-being and result in high worker turn-over rates. The Covid-19 crisis is already manifesting itself in layoffs, furloughs and other forms of labour re-organisation, adding to the urgent need to understand how female workers are coping with the changing demands of fragile value chains.

Although there have been studies conducted on assessing well-being in similar work contexts, it has been largely done by measuring well-being through domain-specific and static indicators of workplace welfare such as wage. There is little understanding of what we call “processual well-being”, namely how the past experiences, present living conditions and future aspirations of workers shape their overall well-being. Furthermore, while several studies suggest that investors from emerging markets have lower labour standards and are therefore promoting low employment conditions in their firms, studies of the direct impact of FDI on workers have rarely explicitly compared investors’ countries of origin. To fill this gap, the project innovates by combining development studies with social psychology and anthropology to capture a more expansive conceptualization of worker well-being that includes individual, relational and longitudinal processes combined with culturally contextualized understandings.

In this project, we will study this issue through the case of Ethiopia, one of Africa’s fastest growing economies and one of the top three FDI-receiving countries in Africa as of 2019. Furthermore, job turnover in foreign-managed enterprises in the country is high and workers move among sectors and employers or migrate to take up these positions. These, in addition to the above described work conditions, can have a detrimental impact on the well-being of newly employed workers, particularly women. Therefore, we ask whether the rapid influx of FDI is creating decent work (SDG8) and how it impacts the well-being (SDG3) of the women employed in these industries. Achieving gender equality (SDG5) among workers remains a key challenge in rapidly-industrializing Ethiopia, which is currently ranked one of the lowest countries for the Gender Development Index.

Research Approach:

To meet the project objective, we use a mixed-method approach, through iterative analyses conducted in three rounds: 

1. A qualitative study of female employees:

  • Exploratory in-depth interviews with female employees working in foreign owned apparel factories and horticultural farms in Ethiopia.
  • Two integrated ethnographic data collection methods—in-depth interviewing and participant observation of selected female employees.

2. A qualitative study of employers and CSR policies: In-depth interviews with employers and senior managers of selected apparel factories and flower farms, complemented with an analysis of the corporate social responsibility (CSR) policies and frameworks that provide the context within which female workers operate.

3. A large-scale survey of female employees, involving more than 2000 female employees in apparel factories and horticultural farms.

Project Output:

The findings will enable the project team to:

  • enhance our understanding of the impact of employment in FDI generated farms and factories on women’s overall well-being over time.
  • develop a Corporate Social Responsibility Guide that will help hiring organizations to design policies and programs that contribute to the well-being of their female employees (and their families). This is envisioned to lead to higher worker retention rates, increased productivity and improved CSR outcomes.