Project Details


Sub-Saharan African (SSA) governments are looking for sectors that can drive inclusive growth in the context of large youth populations, high under- and unemployment, and previous growth trajectories that did not create enough jobs or catalyze economic transformation. At the same time, global apparel buyers are looking to SSA as the last ‘cheap labor’ frontier for labor-intensive apparel production given that Asia’s dominance in apparel exports is set to decline, driven by increases in production costs and a turn to higher technological sectors and domestic markets. The shift of apparel production to SSA could be a win-win situation for global buyers and African governments, firms and workers: finding new low cost sourcing locations, and spurring inclusive industrialization and growth in SSA countries. Yet, evidence from other regions with apparel export industries shows that export firms face high competitive pressures and that jobs are characterized by very low wages and problematic working conditions. EthApparel asks whether Ethiopia can harness the opportunities of participating in the apparel global value chain (GVC) to drive industrialization that is sustainable both from the perspective of supplier firms and workers. The project examines concomitantly the three scales of global buyers, supplier firms, and workers as well as the agency of these actors in driving inclusive development outcomes in the context of Ethiopia’s political economy.

Existing research has pointed out the ways in which the integration into the apparel GVC has historically led to broader development opportunities, although often under very problematic working conditions. Against the background of a specific global economic context in the 1960s and 1970s (strong demand growth in end markets, limited competition among suppliers, preferential market access) but also through national industrial policies, North East Asian countries achieved high export prices and were also able to benefit from technology transfer to local firms and linkages to the domestic economy. However, the conditions for new entrants into the apparel GVC have gradually deteriorated since the 1980s: In the US and Europe, market saturation and low demand growth (due to stagnating wages) led to a focus on non-manufacturing related core competencies and further outsourcing, combined with a consolidation into a small number of buyers dominating the global market. At the same time, competition among apparel supplier firms increased as many governments in the Global South pursued export-oriented industrialization strategies, creating asymmetric market power, especially after the end of the Multi-Fibre Arrangement in 2005. Contemporary buyer-supplier relations are characterized by apparel lead firms demanding high commercial requirements (quality, lead times, flexibility) from suppliers, while similarly pursuing aggressive pricing strategies. This has been labelled as a supplier squeeze, which reduces the scope for wealth capture among supplier countries and puts pressure on supplier firms that result in poor working conditions and low wages.

Part of a broader shift to export-orientation, the Ethiopian government has identified the apparel industry as a priority sector and pursued strategic industrial policies with the aim to ensure broader development benefits from apparel exports. It promoted specific eco-industrial parks and engaged top apparel buyers that in turn encouraged their core suppliers to open factories in the parks, which also invested in some supply chain linkages in the country.

Against the background of the specific Ethiopian context and ongoing changes in the apparel GVC, EthApparel examines the possibilities and limitations of apparel-based industrialization in the twenty-first century. The project uses a multi-disciplinary framework that combines GVC analysis, a class-relational approach and labor regime theory. This allows to explain what drives capital accumulation strategies and wealth distribution both in the Global North where buyers are still largely located and in the Global South where the majority of production takes places, thus producing a globalist conception of GVCs, class and labor regimes. Corresponding with the three levels of global buyers, suppliers and workers, EthApparel consists of three work packages that cover:

(1) Supplier Squeeze Analysis, based on a survey with apparel export firms, trade data analysis, semi-structured interviews with buyers and a content analysis of corporate documents
(2) Firm Factory Labor Regimes and Workers’ Organizational Practices, which includes a survey with production managers, semi-structured interviews with representatives of worker collective organisations and government authorities and the review of labor laws and regulations
(3) Worker collective and individual agency and worker subjectivities, applying methods such as workers survey, worker interviews and Focus Group Discussion and labor ethnographies
Effective start/end date01/02/202031/12/2025