Where have all the Workers Gone? Labour and Work in Ghana, 1951-2010

Lead Research Organisation: University of Cambridge
Department Name: History

Abstract

This project for the first time systematically combines economic and social history perspectives on the post-colonial era in Africa; a period of labour history so far lacking long-term studies. Taking the example of Ghana, it tries out a distinctive blend of approaches, combining the systematic use of both qualitative and quantitative sources, addressing recent debates both in labour and economic history, and combining a range of local studies with a national overview.
The project addresses two partly conflicting trends in history and historiography. One is the tendency to analyse work "beyond wage labour" and focus increasingly on "informal" and "precarious" labour. This matches a critique of older assumptions that Africa would reproduce European patterns by becoming "proletarianized", with wage labour as the dominant form. Instead, the argument goes, the number of regular wage workers in postcolonial Africa did not grow as expected, while it was the category variously known as customary, informal or precarious labour that grew. The second trend includes the finding that the incidence of wage labour especially in rural areas across the continent has been seriously underestimated.
This combination of observations is the starting point for an in-depth study of labour trends in decolonizing and independent Africa. Ghana makes an apt case study, because there is substantial labour historiography for the colonial era, and potentially excellent primary material for the post-colonial. It was in Ghana that the term "informal sector" was coined, and Ghana epitomises a broader African contrast in economic growth rates and labour relations between the earlier and more recent periods since independence. The project will develop a national overview but focus in detail on three areas - Accra, a cocoa-growing region, and a northern savanna region - selected to represent different aspects of the experience of labour. Research questions include the changing size and composition of the workforce, the changing structure of forms of occupations and employment, the real earnings of labour, labour market integration, the structure of informal work and entrepreneurship, migrant flows and regional inequality, and the relation between poverty, precariousness and work. All these issues are strongly gendered. Sources include interviews, official and unofficial archives, surveys, censuses, newspapers and court records.
The cooperation between the German and British PIs offers combined expertise that forms the indispensable basis for the comprehensive approach envisaged in this project. Special emphasis is put on the participation of Ghanaian scholars. Two experienced scholars employed at Ghanaian universities will be involved as consultants, contributing expert advice as well as individual chapters. Moreover, early-career as well as senior scholars from Ghana will take part in workshops and other project-related activities.

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