In March 2015, IISH staff members Andreas Admasie, Stefano Bellucci and Marien van der Heijden visited the Bahir Dar Textile Factory in Ethiopia to start a digitization project, a cooperation between IISH, the factory and Bahir Dar University. The factory has a probably complete set of personel files, which gives a unique view on workers' life courses.
The workers' archive of the factory is in a very good condition, providing a rare and valuable resource for research on the lived history of a generation workers that provided the manpower of the first large push for Ethiopian economic modernization, the social dynamics and transformations, and the political upheavals this led to. As such it can also provide a valuable resource for researchers grappling with the effects of the ongoing large push for such modernization.
The Bahir Dar textile factory was established in 1961 using funds from Italian war reparations. These reparations were symbolically put to use to award the people of the Gojam region for their resistance against Italian occupation by establishing this factory. The factory constituted the first - and for a long time only - modern industry in the Gojam region. For this reason it has occupied a special place in popular imagination and in the political economy. In the late 1960s it employed some 1900 workers, growing to around 3000 at the height of its importance.
Today it employs some 1300 people. The workers of the factory (of whom a relatively large share has been female) played a prominent role in the workers opposition to the moderate central trade union leadership in the prelude to the revolution. There were also regionalist contradictions among the work force, which was, to a certain degree, segmented: foreigners dominated the early management while workers from the regions Shewa, Eritrea and Tigray tended to dominate the skilled workforce, triggering contradictions with the locally recruited non-skilled workforce.
Working conditions were relatively unfavourable (ILO reported that child labour was employed) and labour unrest was widespread over the late 1960s and early 1970s. Several strikes were organized and the warehouse was burnt down by arsonists. The divisions that originated in the factory between local and non-local workers, and the struggle over control over the factory union between these categories, came to mark relations between these groups in the larger city and the state involuntarily could not escape becoming drawn into the conflict.