Field and river

20th International Conference of Ethiopian Studies (ICES20)
Mekelle University, Ethiopia

"Regional and Global Ethiopia - Interconnections and Identities"
1-5 October, 2018

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GIRMA Negash Ture, Addis Ababa University, Department of History, Ethiopia

This study explores the early origins and genesis of labour related legislation in imperial Ethiopia. It examines when and how the issue of labour captured the attention of lawmakers/lawgivers. It also probes the motives and the stimulus for some of the early labour legislation. How did the early legislators understand labour conceptually, and what were the areas of intervention for the imperial state and its degree of tolerance for labour demands and labour organizations of any form. Arguably, 1908 was the year when the earliest labour-related law was enacted by the Ethiopian state. Documents show that Emperor Menilik II emphatically called upon his subjects to respect and appreciate workers, in a remarkable departure from past practice. Since then, the evolution of labour legislation has been a dynamic process punctuated by many twists and turns which merit historical analysis. The enigma of why labour legislation became necessary in a rural economy massively dependent on agriculture has attracted little scholarly attention. Economically, to say the least, Ethiopia at the turn of the 20th century was hardly industrialised or capitalist. Culturally, traditional Ethiopian society despised manual work. Metal workers, potters and even traders were overtly despised and marginalised. In many Ethiopian communities, such workers were outcasts barred from inter-marriage and property rights, including land ownership. Moreover, at the time Ethiopia opted for the earliest labour legislation, wage labour was a rarity. What was the inspiration for labour law? This study examines the available sources to unlock this mystery. At a time when labour is emerging as a central issue of the developmental process, and existing labour law is undergoing reform, this study offers a relevant insight into the origins of Ethiopian labour law.