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) aimed 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 did 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 innovated 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. This influx has often been highly welcomed by recipient countries, where it has been 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 vary greatly in quality. In firms and contexts with poor employment conditions, employees, particularly women, may be 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 turnover rates. The Covid-19 pandemic in some instances manifested itself in layoffs, furloughs and other forms of labour re-organisation, adding a further layer 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 wages. There has been less understanding of what our project called “processual well-being”, namely how the past experiences, present living conditions and future aspirations of workers shape their overall well-being. Furthermore, studies of the direct impact of FDI on workers have rarely explicitly compared value chains by the geographical origins of their managers or the destination of their exports. To fill these gaps, the project innovated 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 studied 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, with workers moving among sectors and employers or migrating 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 asked whether the rapid influx of FDI was creating decent work (SDG8) and how it impacted 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 in the UN’s Gender Development Index.

Research Approach:

To meet the project objectives, we used 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 Outputs:

The findings enabled 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.
  • disseminate these findings to a range of stakeholders through a series of events in The Netherlands and Ethiopia.
  • develop a Good Practices Guide to help hiring organizations design policies and programs that contribute to the well-being of their female employees.