Education International
Education International

Trade union rights at risk in Ethiopia

published 28 July 2006 updated 28 July 2006

For the past 15 years, Education International and member organizations such as the Dutch teachers’ union AOb and the National Union of Teachers of England and Wales have actively supported the Ethiopian Teachers’ Association. Why the need for this solidarity? Because the ETA has suffered ongoing repression by a government that not only refuses to recognize its existence, but has actively sought to destroy it.

Founded in 1949, the ETA has a long history of advocacy for teachers and for quality public education. Prior to 1993, it was the largest national trade union in Ethiopia with about 120,000 members. However, in recent years the Ethiopian government has actively harassed the union, including freezing the ETA bank account and pension fund, shutting down regional offices, carrying out illegal raids on the Addis Ababa headquarters, dismissing ETA members from their jobs, and jailing dozens of teachers. In 1993, the government created a surrogate teacher union also called the Ethiopian Teachers’ Association, thus engaging in what amounts to “identity theft” of the authentic organization. In 1996, government forces arrested and imprisoned ETA President Dr. Taye Woldesmiate for his trade union advocacy and criticism of government education policy. Throughout the next six years, he suffered long periods of time shackled in solitary confinement. Other ETA leaders also have paid a high price for defending the rights of teachers in Ethiopia, but none more so than former Deputy Secretary General Asefa Maru. He was both a respected trade union leader and an executive member of the Ethiopian Human Rights Council. In 1997, Maru was assassinated by security police. At the same time, Ethiopian government forces occupied the ETA offices and executive members were forced into hiding. General Secretary Gemorraw Kassa was then in London, where he applied for and received asylum. Meanwhile, international human rights groups, trade unions and donor countries mounted an international campaign to free Dr. Woldesmiate, who was the first Ethiopian ever declared a prisoner of conscience by Amnesty International. After extensive pressure he was released in 2002. He courageously returned to Ethiopia protected by the vigilance of OECD embassies, which maintained a human rights coordinating group. Many other teachers have faced threats, beatings and arbitrary imprisonment without charge. Unfortunately, this long history of repression has only intensified in the past year. A national election in May 2005 was widely condemned as fraudulent, sparking widespread protests. In response, a government crackdown targeted both teachers and journalists. At present six teachers union leaders are in prison, including Kassahun Kebede, chair of the Addis Abbaba branch of the ETA and also an Amnesty International prisoner of conscience. In October 2005, Dr. Woldesmiate once again felt forced to leave Ethiopia due to escalating risk. Indeed further outrageous charges of treason and genocide were filed against both Dr. Woldesmiate and Kassahun Kebede. These charges have since been changed to “outrage against the Constitution and the Constitutional Orders,” but still carry potential death sentences for both men. Education International is calling on the government of Ethiopia to:

  • Uphold international law pertaining to freedom of association and collective bargaining rights;
  • Respect the ETA as the legitimate voice of teachers in Ethiopia and allow it to conduct its business without government interference; and to
  • Engage in dialogue with the ETA towards much-needed improvements to public education in Ethiopia.

For more information, see www.ei-ie.org.