CAIRN-INT.INFO : International Edition
Future historians who try to understand early twenty-first century Africa will be perplexed. The statistics will tell them it was a poor continent, while numerous press articles will inform them that it was full of “innovative young entrepreneurs.” […] A whole prize industry has emerged. Its actors—media, multinationals, and organizations of all sorts—compete fiercely to award prizes to our young “innovators,” reveling in the bubble they have created. [1]

Aims and contents of the issue

To overcome the discomfort about wage labor studies in Africa

1 These days it is not an easy thing, scientifically speaking, to undertake research or publish work on wage earners in sub-Saharan Africa. The subject is easily dismissed as unfashionable, even retrograde. Extremely diverse voices have highlighted the way studies of work in Africa during the twentieth century tended to focus excessively on configurations associated with wage labor (particularly urban and industrial). But the corresponding professional categories, particularly that of laborer, have always remained a minority in African societies.

2 Conversely, this kind of research can also be taken as an attack on an already battered intellectual legacy and as an endorsement of comprehensive and ultimately blinding critiques, even though “African work and workers” have not been “in fashion in the social sciences” for several years now (Copans 2014). [2]

3 By collecting a set of articles that all bear witness, in different ways, to the transformation and vitality of wage relations in Central Africa from west to east, this special issue aims primarily to draw attention to empirical configurations that have so far gone largely unnoticed. It also intends to contribute to the development of a more coherent historiography, less affected by the changes caused by structural adjustment programs. Finally, it will suggest various analytical tools that can help to make room for “low-wage earners”—subaltern, predominantly manual laborers, often without formal employment contracts—among the diversity not only of forms and circumstances of work, but also of employment standards currently found on the continent.

4 The problem here is not that work is no longer on the radar of African studies researchers: on the contrary, the last few years have seen a revitalization of empirical approaches and theoretical discussions in socioanthropology (Comaroff and Comaroff 2010; Diedhiou 2021; Kasmir and Carbonella 2014; Mususa 2021; Smith 2021; Tchicaya-Oboa, Kouvouama, and Missié 2014) and especially in history (Bellucci and Eckert 2019; Cooper 2019; Labor History 2017; Messi Me Nang 2014; Tiquet 2019). [3] Wage earners, however, have almost never been selected as a research topic, partly because of the shift in focus mentioned above, but also because of the progressive imposition of new imaginaries of the economy that obscure their activity—imaginaries that Achille Mbembe has recently criticized. [4] These workers seem to have been bracketed off and deemed indissociable from the normative conceptions of history and societies that characterized the research carried out almost half a century ago, in an academic context that was much less professional and more politicized than today. Our diagnosis here is broadly similar to that pronounced in 2016 by African Economic History in a special issue on labor migration (Guthrie 2016).

5 The desire to escape this impasse lies behind the publication of this issue, which follows on from a thematic school on “Working Africa” held in May 2019 by the Centre national de la recherche scientifique (CNRS, French National Centre for Scientific Research). Twenty-one researchers were involved in its production, of whom almost all are at the beginning of their careers and half are from African countries. The issue also includes a retrospective interview with Frederick Cooper, a labor historian who is one of the principal drivers of historical research on contemporary Africa. The conversation was a chance to revisit his career since his studies at Stanford University in the 1960s, but also to discuss the evolution of studies of work and labor in Africa over the last half century and the epistemic shifts that have taken place.

Articles that illustrate the increasing lability of wage relations

6 Most of the articles illustrate and analyze the contemporary resurgence or transformation of wage labor in sub-Saharan Africa. They document the increasing diversity of configurations over the last twenty years, with the wage relation commonly used alongside other activities in context of the more well-known phenomenon of pluriactivity. This diversification of wage labor can be seen in the rapid development of the security industry: Yves Dieudonné Bapes Ba Bapes describes how security guards in Douala arrange to supplement their salary, making their situation more tolerable and sustainable. We might also think of the boom in construction, both small and large sites: Gérard Amougou, Antoine Kernen, and Fabien Nkot look at relations between local and Chinese laborers on large infrastructure construction sites in Cameroon. The changes taking place in small- and large-scale farming are also relevant here: Pierre Girard, Esther Laske, El Hadji Malick Sylla, Jérémy Bourgoin, and Moussa Sall, on one hand, and Joel Jiometio Tchinda, Hervé Tchekote, and Thérèse Moulende, on the other, examine the increasing but still largely neglected diffusion of agricultural wage labor in Senegal and Cameroon respectively. Chloé Josse-Durand and Éric Ndayisaba, meanwhile, present a comparative study of working conditions and pay among workers in tea plantations and factories in Kenya and Burundi.

7 The lability of the wage relation and its coexistence with other forms of working relationship, including in a heavily regulated industry like mining, is discussed several times. Héritier Mesa Nteke discusses both aspects in the context of the working classes in Kinshasa, emphasizing that resourcefulness often takes the form of small salaried jobs combined with other activities. The humanitarian sector is dealt with in Zoé Tinturier’s article on the trajectories of Malagasy women employed by a marketing program for a cheap food product. Like vigilantism, this sector is not one of the more commonly studied fields in the socioanthropology of work. Nevertheless, the articles in this issue that look at these areas demonstrate the heuristic potential of a study of work relations in such contexts and the daily negotiations they entail.

8 Other articles, presented in the first section of the issue, look at questions of categorization and labeling from the perspective of efforts to standardize government, employers, and wage earners, but also the concrete exercise of labor law. The latter is at the heart of the article by Sidy Cissokho, who looks particularly at the courtrooms where labor disputes are tried. He shows the extent to which the classification of a labor relationship as a wage relationship is the product of a complex set of circumstances at the intersection of the mobilization of workers and the professional logics dictating the careers of trade union representatives. In contrast, Matthieu Bolay and Filipe Calvão analyze how the use of labor subcontractors and the manipulation of legal regimes (particularly that reserved for so-called artisanal mining) are enabling more and more mining companies to mobilize a workforce without having to formalize wage relations. Following the trajectories of vigilantes in two neighborhoods in Lagos, Lucie Revilla shows that the establishment of a wage relation represents, for these workers, a horizon of expectations and something to be negotiated with employers, associated with the quest for stability and with a number of symbolic transactions related to the performance of their masculinity. Finally, Ferruccio Ricciardi’s article offers a historical overview of the question of labeling, which sits at the intersection of economics, politics, and law. He sheds light on the multiple contradictions in how the status of African workers was defined by the colonial authorities and trading firms in the French Congo in the 1920s and 1930s, with promotion of the freedom to work counterbalanced by repression of mobility.

Contributing to the history of wage labor

9 As coordinators, we must also say what this issue is not, in order to identify the structure(s) for which it could form the first stone. The following pages are not capable of offering a history of wage labor in Africa along the lines of what has been attempted for France in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries (Didry 2016; Menjoulet 2020) or for a related subject like forced labor (Stanziani 2020). Nevertheless, new knowledge acquired over recent years can contribute to a social history of wage labor in sub-Saharan Africa (particularly in a specific region, the Copperbelt in Zambia and the DRC [Ferguson 1999; Larmer 2021; Larmer et al. 2021]) but also to a history of the legal institution of wage labor (Le Crom and Boninchi 2021; Maul, Puddu, and Tijani 2019). This new knowledge sits alongside the panorama of the decolonization period presented by Frederick Cooper (2014), whose kaleidoscopic research approach serves as a source of inspiration (see the interview with Cooper in this issue). It is also complemented by sometimes rich national or regional historiographies, including outside South Africa and southern Africa, as in Senegal (Fall 2011; Guèye 2011), Burkina Faso (Ouédraogo 1985; Ouédraogo and Fofana 2009), Uganda (Mamdani 1996), the Maghreb (Benarrosh 2019), Nigeria (Lindsay 2003), Kenya (Bellucci 2017), or the Sudan (Sikainga 1996, 2010). Although the comparative history of the wage institution and the universe of practices associated with it in sub-Saharan Africa has yet to be written, there is a vast amount of research on which such a project could draw, including locally conducted research in the form of dissertations and theses that have not passed the hurdles of publication and internationalization. At most, we want to emphasize the heuristic potential of such an undertaking, including for “provincializing Europe”—to quote Dipesh Chakrabarty (2000), who was originally a labor historian—by offering one or several historical accounts of wage labor.

10 Another avenue for more in-depth study involves the comparative dimension of the research presented here, in other words our collective capacity to fit its findings, including specific details, into a wider field of research that extends across other continents. In light of the history of labor studies in the Global South, the existence of such a difficulty is paradoxical. Since the beginning of the 1980s there have been several attempts to bridge the divisions between studies carried out in as many autonomous fields as there are areal specializations, and to propose a more reflexive relationship to the North-South divide, with all that implies in terms of disciplinary and methodological tropisms. The ORSTOM [5] team that coordinated the publication in 1987 of Classes ouvrières d’Afrique noire (Agier, Copans, and Morice 1987) aimed to do exactly that. It chose as its title “Work and Workers in the Third World” and conducted its research in Latin America as well as in Africa and Asia. While that comparative ambition at the scale of the “periphery countries,” as they were known at the time, found several expressions in the English-speaking academic world (Cohen et al. 1979; Development and Change 1979), the 1980s were marked by an even more comprehensive attempt with the development of the field of new international labor studies (NILS) (on the constitution of this field and the theoretical toolbox it championed, see Cohen [1980] and Gutkind [1988]). The NILS proposed both to overcome the national, areal, and disciplinary segmentation of labor studies, and to move beyond the prevailing focus on organized struggles and labor movements to look at the world of work from below. In practice, however, they served above all as a space for dialogue between studies of the Global South, while imparting to such studies a sensibility borrowed from Thompsonian social history and from cultural history (Munck 2009). In France, the scientific community formed by ORSTOM/IRD served for a time as their counterpart. It subsequently maintained this comparative approach but shifted the focus first to companies (Cabanes, Copans, and Sélim 1995) and then, accompanying a renewal of the team, to “the unique experiences of globalized work” (Didry et al. 2004) in a new research unit called “Work and globalization” (Selim 2003).

11 More recently, the new directions offered by world history [6] have, as we shall see, opened up a unified perspective on the global history of work by emphasizing the connections (or disconnects) between worlds and experiences of work since the beginning of the modern era, going beyond not just national borders but also those that have been supposed to exist between free and unfree labor, formal and informal work, productive and reproductive labor (Eckert 2016; Hofmeester and Van der Linden 2017; Van der Linden 2008).

12 Compared to this scientific tradition, this issue at first sight seems to explore more concrete questions that are specific to African countries and how they are viewed. Throughout the editorial process, however, we and the contributing authors have tried to sustain a comparative dialogue between Africa and the rest of the world. This is in large part due to the thirty or so evaluators who have contributed to the scientific socialization of the texts collected here, particularly thanks to their involvement, beyond African studies, in the sociologies of work, the working class (especially urban), and the agricultural or industrial spheres. Despite our area-specific focus, therefore, we were keen to draw inspiration from recent approaches which, in sociology and anthropology, have revived the project of a cross-cutting study of the constraints and tactical universes inhabited by the working classes, both inside and outside the workplace. Examples include, in France, the work of the Rosa Bonheur Collective (Collectif Rosa Bonheur et al. 2014; Collectif Rosa Bonheur 2019) and the revival of the notion of “industrial citizenship” for comparative purposes (Allal and Yon 2020).

A phenomenon to reveal and explore: The rise of the proportion of wage earners among the working classes in contemporary Africa

Growth of the wage-earning workforce, in both absolute and relative terms

13 Salaried employees are undoubtedly in the minority in contemporary sub-Saharan Africa. According to data collected by the International Labor Organization (ILO), this group often constitutes less than 15 percent of the total working population. Nevertheless, it is important to emphasize that the major changes to employment standards championed by international funders, African states, and development actors may in turn have encouraged the diffusion of incomplete or unrealistically exaggerated conclusions to the effect that wage earning has been declining steadily on the continent. The transformations and dynamics that characterize wage earning seem out of step with the “heroization of entrepreneurs” that now permeates the employment policies of the development industry, to borrow a phrase from Thomas Bierschenk and José Maria Muñoz (2021). The proposal of these two authors to dissect this new category of public action—a category that includes extremely varied situations, from the most precarious, small-scale initiatives of “resourceful” individuals to the rentier businesses of “big men”—and to turn to ethnography to observe the work practices, social activities, and tactics used by these “entrepreneurs,” is in fact very close to what we want to suggest here concerning salaried employment (Bierschenk and Muñoz 2021).

14 To do so, however, we must first get an idea of the place salaried employment occupies in contemporary African societies, notwithstanding the distorting mirror that is often held up to them. This point is especially important because the image of an Africa where wage labor is no more than residual is prevalent in the literature of the social sciences. As inspiring as they are at the conceptual level, James Ferguson’s works on the government of extraction (Ferguson 2006) and, even more pertinently, on the possibility of a form of social security decoupled from employment (Ferguson 2015), have contributed significantly to this view of a future without wage labor. The recent General Labour History of Africa itself opens with a foreword that insists on the essentially “jobless” nature of the continent’s economic growth in recent years, an idea that is at the center of the ILO’s message [7] and, incidentally, is adopted by Andreas Eckert, a labor historian who specializes in Africa, in his chapter on wage labor in the same volume (Bellucci and Eckert 2019: xv, 41).

15 In contrast, during a recent historical and economic seminar at the University of Artois in April 2021 (CREHS 2021), Michel-Pierre Chelini suggested placing the current rate of salaried employment in sub-Saharan Africa at around 20 percent, taking into account the variety both of types of wage labor and of the proportion of wages and incomes in the various countries’ GDPs. He also discussed the progressive institutionalization of the labor market in sub-Saharan Africa (increasing number of employees), with wages playing a role in job choice. The main constraints on labor markets are related to rapid population growth, an urbanization rate of around 50 percent, and the scale of migration. Nevertheless, there are important regional differences within the continent. Finally, because the monetization of labor relations is a dynamic process, an understanding of wage labor in sub-Saharan Africa requires consideration of a large number of situations, going beyond industrial relations to include artisan production, agriculture, and other sectors. We must also bear in mind the importance of different types of statistical spread (by educational level, gender, sector). In methodological terms, there are significant differences in access to data depending on the country or region. From a quantitative perspective, it may be helpful to approach this complexity through the figures available on the ILOSTAT database, which collects and aggregates labor force surveys conducted by states. Of course, these statistics must be seen more as an object of study than a research resource, and our aim is not to validate their representations of society. They usually rely on declarative surveys and often on extrapolations of results from previous years. They also impose categories and conceptual distinctions (unemployment and employment, salaried employment and self-employment) that are not actually capable of fully accounting for the complexity and hybridity of real-life situations (Phélinas 2014; Sylla 2013). Nevertheless, they can be useful for identifying overall trends and, occasionally, for countering the hypothesis of a gradual disappearance of wage labor, both in the public and private sectors.

16 To examine this phenomenon in more detail, we must begin by overcoming the overly frequent and close association between wage labor and formality, an association whose history is related to a set of ideological assumptions regarding labor on the continent (De Luna 2016; Etoughé-Efé 2000). In contemporary sub-Saharan Africa, the wage relationship exists to a great extent outside the contractual framework established by law. By defining wage earners flexibly as “workers who hold the type of jobs defined as ‘paid employment jobs,’ where the incumbents hold explicit (written or oral) or implicit employment contracts that give them a basic remuneration that is not directly dependent upon the revenue of the unit for which they work,” [8] ILOSTAT identifies a continuous growth of this group in sub-Saharan Africa since the beginning of the 2000s. After stagnating at around 18 percent of the average active working population during the 1990s, the proportion has increased almost linearly to reach 25 percent by 2019. This aggregate statistic encompasses a wide range of situations but undeniably reveals a general trend: only twelve countries, or 20 percent of the forty-seven in the sample, show no signs of this growth.

From statistics to subjectivities

17 This sort of macroeconomic observation can and must be no more than a premise. It raises important questions regarding the profile of these new wage earners, their geographic mobilities, the way in which the landscape is being marked by construction sites, mines, plantations, and all sorts of small and large businesses. Because the professional positions held by these subaltern wage earners are generally precarious, physically demanding, or do not live up to their promise, turnover is often very high. We must, therefore, bear in mind that for however many tens or hundreds of thousands of jobs, there are many more individuals who hold those jobs at least once in their life, and millions more who encounter recruitment rumors or opportunities.

18 In Cameroon, for example, national statistics reveal an increase of 54 percent in the total number of people in formal salaried employment between 2008 and 2015, [9] and an increase of 65 percent in the private sector (around 640,000 of the 900,000 jobs recorded in the country) (Institut national de statistique 2010, 2018). The growing demand for labor in industrial agriculture, construction, and security has revitalized the spheres of work associated with these economic sectors, giving rise to increased mobility, the occasional feminization of the workforce (on large plantations see Vadot [2019: 170ff]), and several large-scale protest movements that exploit competition between employers. In Gabon, the Direction Générale de l’Économie (2010, 2020) reports an increase from 116,608 formal salaried jobs in 2008 (58.8 percent of which were in the public sector) to 191,362 in 2019 (55.7 percent of which were in the public sector), representing growth of 24.3 percent. According to the economist Emmanuel Moussone (2021), the current challenge in this small oil-producing country is the shift from a rentier economy to a production economy. After a period of “full employment” between 1970 and 1985 and having had to import labor in the 1970s (when there was large-scale public work), the employment level fell from the second half of the 1980s. The status quo is being maintained for the moment by the country’s dependence on oil. Since 2015, the private sector has produced few jobs and the state, acting on the International Monetary Fund’s instructions, has stopped all official recruitment. Beyond these two examples, the articles in this issue reveal a range of trends that vary from country to country, many of which have remained under the radar of attempts to produce a comprehensive account of developments in African labor markets.

19 Thus, echoing the need to approach figures with caution, certain economists state explicitly that we must not rely solely on statistical data for understanding labor markets. John Sender and Christopher Cramer (2021) use life stories to shed light on the reality of inequality and to challenge certain widespread stances within their discipline, such as methodological individualism and the assumption of rational choice. In fact, the studies in this issue tend to prefer “qualitative” approaches, whether ethnography or historical work with archives. Conversely, and from our perspective on political sociology and anthropology, we feel it is important to point out that social science research on work and wage labor seems to have a tendency to supplement its arguments with statistical, administrative, and legal information. This may be achieved either by analyzing survey results or by collecting written sources (Olivier de Sardan 2008: 66–69). The empirical approaches used in this issue are no exception, and in that respect they reflect a methodological diversity that was already established in the 1950s, when anthropologists became interested in African urban and migrant workers. The vast text anthology published in 1956 under the auspices of UNESCO, including contributions from several of the big names in dynamic anthropology, insisted on the utility of these critical borrowings from demography in particular (Forde 1956: 18 ff). The same spirit prompted Georges Balandier to use the title Sociologie for his study of the inhabitants of “the black Brazzavilles,” in a moment of disciplinary openness and rapprochement between researchers and administrators (de L’Estoile 2017).

A research revival

The return of political economy?

20 Recent publications in the economic and social sciences highlight a set of themes that reflect the concerns of this issue and enable a fresh look at various questions that have already been well-documented. Contemporary challenges related to economic policies and the political economy in Africa have been addressed in two recent special reports. The journal Afrique contemporaine focused on “the uncertain trajectories of industrialization in Africa” (2018), in other words the different possibilities of a resurgence of industrial activity after the period of deindustrialization that began in the 1980s. The journal Mondes en développement, meanwhile, looked at employment policies in developing countries (2020). Both volumes discussed the ways in which the African continent is integrated into globalization, both in terms of economic trends and international agendas, while emphasizing the important role played by states, national trajectories, and regional dynamics. Often confining themselves to larger scales and focused on key normative issues, economic analyses and the institutions that conduct or publicize them tend to smooth out variation in production and employment relations, which are particularly diverse in terms of their composition and characteristics in the countries of the Global South (Hammer and Ness 2021). The ILO, for example, is not interested in whether there are grounds for challenging the promotion of “decent work,” a concept it has been championing as a replacement for formal employment since the beginning of the 2000s. However, the value of terms like “informality” and “precarity” needs to be assessed through the prism of a normativity that has always characterized the institution and that tends to align itself with European industrial standards (Benanav 2019; Maul, Puddu, and Tijani 2019: 224). In Senegal, Eveline Baumann (2019) has conducted painstaking work, digging beneath the surface of the categories promoted by national and international public policies and looking critically at the available statistics to reveal the density of aspirations associated with employment statuses and the diversity of concrete work situations. [10]

21 Like Anita Hammer and Immanuel Ness (2021), Joshua Lew McDermott (2021), in his ethnographic research on “informal” workers (wage-earning or not) in Sierra Leone, concludes that they contribute fully to the overall production of value and that there is, therefore, a need to update our understanding of class relations as it pertains to their situation. Class relations have also been reinterpreted in light of the historical trajectory (over half a century) of the working class in Zimbabwe: although Giovanni Arrighi (1970) argued that the proletarianization of peasants in Southern Rhodesia was permanent, Ian Phimister and Rory Pilossof (2017) discuss their “de-proletarianization” since the end of the 1990s and the beginning of the economic recessions. Their work is similar to that of Siphelo Ngcwangu (2020) on South African ex-miners attempting to change career, and shares concerns with Patience Mususa’s (2021) [11] study of contemporary ways of life in the Zambian Copperbelt.

22 Investigating this mining region raises the question of the role of trade unions. Thomas McNamara (2021) reveals the ambiguous role they played in wage negotiations with mining companies during the second half of the 2010s, abandoning military activity in favor of a more conciliatory attitude based on ethical and political aims that did not manage to prevent the deterioration of working conditions. The comparative study of the history and current status of trade unions in South Africa and Nigeria by Infeanyi P. Onyeonoru and Mondli Hlatshwayo (2020), or at the continental scale by Benjamin Rubbers and Alexis Roy (2015), also confirms the erosion of their position by attacks on workers, as well as the many divisions and fragmentations that complicate the organization of power relations.

Pluriactivity and the casualization of working conditions

23 Grasping this new context requires an understanding of the transformation of workplaces, a topic tackled by Debby Bonnin (2021) in the context of South Africa again. Retracing certain phases of the country’s history of industrial sociology, she describes the radical changes in the worlds of work since the end of apartheid: the managerial logics of outsourcing, cost reduction, casualization, and sub-contracting have produced a labor market characterized by insecurity, the marginalization of the working class, and confused trade union positions. The integration of South African supply chains into globalization has thus been reflected in changes in the labor market. Nevertheless, it has not brought about a transformation from the racial perspective. The agricultural working class has also fragmented following the extensive land reforms implemented in Zimbabwe at the beginning of the 2000s (Shonhe, Scoones, and Murimbarimba 2021). While laborers often used to be employed on a long-term basis on large farms, livelihoods are now much more diverse, making them more precarious but also more independent. Wage labor on large farms is thus often combined opportunistically with work on a personal or family farm and with various other activities (in artisanal mines or commerce). Analyzing the changes in the Rwandan coffee-growing sector (in the Nyamasheke region), Patrick Illien, Helena Pérez Niño, and Sabin Bieri (2021) focus on how the subsistence strategies of poor households with limited access to land vary depending on gender composition.

24 In the Congolese and Zambian Copperbelt, this tendency toward having multiple jobs and statuses has become increasingly complex, although without doing away with the hierarchies that structure relations between formalized businesses and small-time miners or the rent extracted by the political elite (Rubbers 2021). [12] In southeastern Niger and the northern regions of Cameroon, the livestock farming sector is undergoing significant changes, with a shift from pastoral practices to permanent ranches that enable capitalist forms of value production (Schareika, Brown, and Moritz 2021) and encourage the establishment of wage relations. While the two approaches to livestock farming do have some points in common (particularly in relation to the optimization of stocks), pastoralism values the herd while ranching primarily considers the capital that it represents. There are thus two competing social logics at work, and the shift from one to the other has major consequences for those involved.

25 Another example of recent changes in labor relations concerns the important role played by Asian workers in many of the continent’s sectors and regions. Beyond the most frequently discussed aspects of this issue, Di Wu (2021) has looked at the emotional dimension of interactions between Chinese migrants and Zambian laborers in the agricultural sector. Pleasant or not, these interactions are undeniably crucial for understanding the daily reality of labor relations as well as the mindset of each social group. Likewise, these study sites provide insight into the confrontations between Chinese expatriates and African wage earners when it comes to imaginaries of work and the norms that should regulate it. Confrontations that, as Miriam Driessen (2019) shows in her study of a highway construction site in Ethiopia, [13] do not just pit different collective histories against each other, but also individual trajectories, with their unique constraints and aspirations. These studies are contributing to the decentering of research on work, opening up space for a more diverse range of perspectives.

Expatriates, women, young people, and children: Minorities at work

26 The situation in Uganda has inspired two recent publications focusing primarily on the question of female labor and gender discrimination. Gaston Brice Nkoumou Ngoa and Ebenezer Lemven Wirba (2021) analyzed the persistence of inequality and the gender pay gap in the urban labor market. They show that these differences are more pronounced in the lowest social strata of the population, despite public policies aimed at reducing the education and skills gap. Inequality is equally important in rural areas, as shown by John Sender and Christopher Cramer (2021) in their comparison of the life stories of two women, Ugandan and Ethiopian, who they spoke to in order to understand their relations to the labor market and to wage labor. They found lives marked by regular violence, changes of fortune, and struggles to survive, and influenced particularly by the state, household organization, and the structure of power relations. They struggle to improve their pay or gain any bargaining power while having to focus on meeting basic needs.

27 In countries where governments suppress initiatives of collective action, the tendency seems to be a lack of improvement in concrete working conditions and pay, and no reduction of child labor. There are numerous programs intended to combat child labor, however, whether implemented by state actors, NGOs, or at a grassroots level. Kouassi Kouman Vincent Mouroufie, Oleh Kam, and Moussa Sangare (2020) study this question in the context of cacao marketing cooperatives in Côte d’Ivoire. They reveal the marginalization of women in the management of these organizations and their relative scarcity in programs to combat child labor, including those that have been awarded sustainable development certificates. The question of child labor is also investigated by Peter Olayiwola (2021) in an ethnographic study in southwestern Nigeria. He emphasizes the fact—often difficult to hear—that child labor can, in certain situations, be a rational choice for particularly marginalized families or children. Moreover, although it tends to involve the exploitation of marginalized children, it may also enable them to escape other forms of violence.

28 Finally, a series of studies has recently examined the complex, inventive, and demanding tactical world through which young urban workers—often migrants—move. Living by their wits with a few patches of formal work, they learn and even develop a sort of situated “wisdom,” according to the coordinators of a special issue of Cadernos de estudios africanos (2019). [14] Ilona Steiler (2021) develops a complementary approach in her intersectional analysis of informal work among street vendors and domestic workers in Tanzania. Marie Lesclingand and Véronique Hertrich (2017) document the increasing participation of adolescent girls in labor migration, which has historically tended to be more masculine. Inequalities of access to employment among young people was also the focus of a comparative (and quantitative) study of six countries (DRC, Liberia, Madagascar, Malawi, Uganda, and Zambia) conducted by Atif Awad and M. Azhar Hussain (2021). This more statistical approach has very recently been supplemented by a resurgence of studies of domestic workers and the political and symbolic implications of their work (Jacquemin and Tisseau 2019; Montgomery 2019).

How can the study of low wage earners in Africa be resumed?

29 These different aspects of the ongoing expansion of the wage relationship in Africa, associated with more general studies of labor both “in Africa” and “from Africa,” [15] help to justify the aims of this issue. The widespread claim of a supposed current or future marginalization of wage labor in sub-Saharan Africa, and the association of wage labor with a period that has now passed, running from the 1940s until the structural adjustments, hamper the sociohistorical understanding of relationships to work in this region. These assumptions also prevent the full representation of contemporary African societies, which is the task of the social sciences. Wage labor is related to mobility—seasonal, medium-term, and permanent—which is itself constantly evolving and which in turn has an impact on urbanity, family relationships, and personal and collective imaginaries (Bourel and Hayem 2019); to forms of authority and conflict that help to shape policy; to forms of appropriation of the economic constraints that contribute to the construction of social borders; to concrete practices that shape material worlds and technologies of the self; and finally, to bureaucratic organizations (companies but also a whole series of “offices” in the Weberian sense that gravitate around these principal bureaucracies), which cannot be separated from the analysis of contemporary forms of governmentality and territoriality (Grajales and Vadot 2020). There is, thus, justification for examining the tools that can be used to resume the study of “low-wage earners” in Africa by inscribing it within a broader field of research on work and worlds of work.

“Modern workers” and “working classes” in the making: African wage earners through the prism of separation

30 For this revitalization to be successful, we must move beyond the avant-gardism that characterizes previous studies. Classed as emerging “modern workers” by late colonial governments or as “working classes” in the making by a series of academic studies in the 1970s and 1980s, African wage earners were for a long time seen as separated from the rest of society and associated with visions of the future. Attention was focused on men and legally formalized wage labor. We now have access to studies that enable us to grasp the political, scientific, and bureaucratic imaginaries of the 1940s and 1950s, when new public policies, driven by fear of the consequences of “detribalization,” started to encourage the stabilization of a circumscribed social group of urbanized, employed Africans (Cooper 2015; Mercier and Copans 2021; Rubbers and Poncelet 2015). Whether in Belgian Congo, British South Africa, French Equatorial Africa, or French West Africa, ethnologists turned their attention to the new situations created by labor and urban migrations, often also attempting to influence the government (Freund 1984, 5–6). Frederick Cooper has studied this period in depth, looking also at the aspirations of African workers. He shows that, while believing the colonial powers’ promises of assimilation in terms of labor law and citizenship, these minor functionaries, employees, and skilled workers were never in fact cut off from the rest of society (Cooper 1996, 277ff.).

31 After independence, the unity between trade unionists and nationalist parties that had seemed so strong in many countries gradually crumbled and was replaced by tensions. Richard Jeffries (1978, 92) documented this process in his study of railway workers in Sekondi, Ghana. Initially fervent supporters of Kwame Nkrumah’s policies, they went on to organize protest strikes in 1961. The intellectual climate was gradually evolving in Western Europe and North America during the same period, with a rise in left-wing opposition to the political compromises made in the aftermath of the Second World War, but also to the transformation of universities, which were rapidly scaling up and becoming more professional. It was in this context that wage earners in formerly colonized African countries, particularly in the industrial sector, were the focus of a new wave of studies that cast aside the extremely theoretical approach taken by the Marxist school of preceding years. The resistance, solidarity, and the ideas of African workers (predominantly male) became the center of attention, with the aim of shedding light on the experiences and opinions of specific groups by detaching them from wider political history. Articles and monographs, often very detailed, were produced on dockers (Cooper 1987; Iliffe 1970; Waterman 1979), factory workers (Lubeck 1986; Peace 1979), railway workers (Grillo 1973; Jeffries 1978), and miners (Crisp 1984; Perrings 1979; Van Onselen 1976, 1982). Influenced by the British historian E. P. Thompson (1963), these studies attempted to document “the making of the African working class,” seeking to explain the impact of workers’ social ties and demands on their city, neighborhood, religion, or political activism—and vice versa. Despite using a form of deductive reasoning that tended to give the condition of wage earning industrial worker its own abstract and universal value, these studies also sought to measure the acclimatization of that condition, the ways in which workers appropriated it, with the aim of challenging profoundly ethnocentric Western labor movements and left-wing political parties. Like the research of the 1950s, these studies also relied on systematic observation, interviews, and archival work—in other words, in-depth research. For that reason, it now seems worthwhile to reconsider them from the perspective of the history of the social sciences [16] or even to revisit certain sites that are still in operation, such as mines, stations, and factories (Burawoy 2003; Laferté, Pasquali, and Renahy 2018).

32 No more than “modern workers” before them, however, these “working classes” never became autonomous as a truly identifiable social group. This fact cannot be blamed solely on structural adjustments, which effectively reduced wages and dissolved numerous collectives. Many authors in the 1970s and 1980s documented the difficulty of identifying practices and ideas that were truly unique to their study subjects, that could testify to a specific “consciousness.” Their works often reached the same conclusion: the African proletariat was above all “populist,” with the predominant social ties those of the family and the neighborhood (Gutkind 1975, 10; Jeffries 1975; Sandbrook and Arn 1977).

A special issue and three cross-cutting lines of research

33 Forty years later, the proportion of formalized employment in each country’s economy has never regained the height of the 1970s and 1980s, while the wage relationship has become significantly more unstable and heterogeneous. In this context, the study of subaltern wage earners has everything to gain from not making prior assumptions about the unity of its subject. As discussed above and as shown by the contributions collected here, it certainly does not lack material that could be used to reconstruct one or several toolboxes. Even better, it can draw on a number of epistemological developments since the beginning of the 1990s that evolved out of a critical stance toward previous studies of work and their focus on a (certain) history of wage labor. Nevertheless, there is no reason to think them incapable of shedding light on the experience of low wage earners. We can illustrate this point by taking three of these developments and showing how they relate to the cross-cutting approaches of the articles in this issue.

Considering the multiple temporalities of the wage earning experience

34 The first development is the revelation of the many different historical temporalities in which experiences of work are inscribed: “durées” (in Bayart’s sense, 2021) through which changes in the form of work have been and are perceived. In his study of jute millworkers in Calcutta, Dipesh Chakrabarty (1989) emphasized the distance between the ideas and aspirations of the workers and the ideal of equality that Thompson had made a key marker of the emergence of the working class as a social subject imagined and represented in England. He reproached the history of work for being trapped in an overly unified narrative that did not fully account for the diversity of lived experiences and points of view, or the fragmentation of world history: a position that Sandro Mezzadra (2011) synthesized when he argued for considering the multiplicity of histories of work. This type of critique seems to us to be absolutely crucial for studying wage earners and subalterns in Africa and for documenting both the “intellectual space unique” to workers (Hayem 2008, 13) and the type of narrative in which the wage earning condition is embedded at a given place and time. The variety of national, regional, and even local historical experiences of wage labor makes this particularly important in Africa.

35 To that end, several contributors to this issue highlight the vitality of the wage earning condition as an idea and a demand, a vitality that is surprising given the dominant narrative paradigm concerning the evolution of worlds of work on the continent. For different reasons and in different circumstances, Senegalese union representatives (Sidy Cissokho), Congolese small-time miners (Matthieu Bolay and Filipe Calvão), vigilantes in Lagos (Lucie Revilla), and workers on the large construction sites that form part of Cameroon’s “emergence” plan (Gérard Amougou, Antoine Kernen, and Fabien Nkot) are all motivated to claim the status of wage earner and to bring into being, through their mobilization, a horizon of expectations that associates wage earning with rights and, often, with a modernizing perspective. These imaginaries of wage earning should not be seen as traces of the past; doing so would be to impose an anachronistic interpretation that is unable to grasp their reality. If we want to avoid replacing one ethnocentric and all-encompassing narrative with another, we must study them in the present, as active participants in the ongoing moralization of labor relations on the continent—something that each of the articles presented here successfully achieves in its own way.

Reintegrating wage earners into the continuum of employment statuses and practices in which they find themselves

36 The global history of work offers a second valuable development, and not just because it has been a particularly fertile field of research in recent years. [17] Workers of the World, by Marcel Van der Linden (2008), is structured around one foundational idea: that of the connection between different forms and statuses of work, beyond legal or ideological distinctions of types of labor such as free and unfree, wage earning and domestic, formal and informal. There has long been a reciprocal engagement between the labor of British and German workers and that of workers from countries such as India and Mozambique, as well as that of sailors, nannies, and laundry workers, shipowners and industrialists. For our purposes in this issue, the attempt to take a global view of the contemporary history (or histories) of labor has two fundamental implications. First, instead of treating low wage earners as an independent social group or category, it allows us to reintegrate them into a continuum and to study them alongside a series of adjacent occupations that often share similar social spaces. When we know the current importance of pluriactivity and mobility between subaltern wage labor and small-scale service, commercial, or artisanal activities, we can see the interest of such a proposal, which makes it possible to grasp the tactical universe and practical social environment in which individuals operate. Second, global history has revealed the limitations of labor histories that remain enclosed within a national framework. This is another essential tool for considering the often transnational migration undertaken by individuals, but also by employers and standardization agencies, in terms of the social spaces formed by this mobility.

37 Here too, several articles in this issue highlight the integration of subaltern wage labor into a shared space of conditions and practices. They thus enable exploration of what causes people to enter, often precariously and on a temporary basis, a wage relationship that is often largely invisible. This is the case for the seasonal agricultural workers in Senegal studied by Pierre Girard, Esther Laske, El Hadji Malick Sylla, Jérémy Bourgoin, and Moussa Sall. Such workers are increasingly numerous but have remained under the radar of public policy. Like the market gardening day laborers in western Cameroon studied by Joel Jiometio Tchinda, Hervé Tchekote, and Thérèse Moulende, these agricultural workers cycle through a series of occupations including subsistence agriculture, rural trade, and small urban jobs, positions that they compare notes on and that form a universe of “life chances” (Weber 1978 [1922]). This type of comparison horizon is also central in Chloé Josse-Durand and Éric Ndayisaba’s description of tea production in Kenya and Burundi, where there is a continuum made up of small differences between factory workers, plantation workers, and day laborers employed by peasant holdings. Héritier Mesa makes a similar argument when he insists on the intimate interrelationship of salaried and self-employed positions within the vast range of “informal” occupations in Kinshasa, from which salaried jobs are often assumed to be absent. What is emerging is, thus, a research approach that, while focusing on wage labor and attempting to render largely invisible situations visible, does so by emphasizing their multiple interrelationships with other, adjacent forms of labor mobilization.

Subaltern wage earners and working classes: Subjectivities, hierarchies, practices

38 Finally, we believe that research on subaltern wage earners in Africa could benefit from the conceptual work conducted during the last twenty years in the field of the sociology of the working class. There is little opportunity for dialogue between that field and African studies. Nevertheless, a subject like ours makes it worthwhile to pay attention to approaches that have tried to produce analytical tools capable of accounting for inequality, hierarchies, and the structuring of social space. By adopting the concept of “working classes” (in the plural), a series of authors have drawn attention to the relationship between “social status” and forms of “cultural separation” and thus of autonomy (Schwartz 2011; Siblot et al. 2015). They thus reach a definition of subalternity that is, on one hand, founded on empirical research rather than simple deduction on the basis of employment status, and on the other, not confined to the register of enchantment or commiseration that often characterizes studies of the working class (Grignon and Passeron 1989; Olivier de Sardan 2008, 209–57). Of course, to borrow from this toolbox we must be able to situate our practice of intersectionality by questioning the resources and stigmas associated in each context with gender, age, educational level, wealth, or heredity. Understood in this way, we believe this approach can be used to reveal working class relationships to wage labor in Africa and to explore how experiences of work and employment help to structure the social sphere. This also seems to be relevant at the level of the “small differences” between relatives, as demonstrated by several articles in this issue that focus on instances of personalized dependence between workers of different status. Another cross-cutting contribution of these texts is to emphasize, in various ways, how the act of becoming a wage earner is perceived by those concerned. It often involves attaining a certain level of security in a generally precarious life trajectory. Yves Dieudonné Bapes Ba Bapes underlines the complementarity between the stability represented by a permanent job as a security guard and the risk-taking involved in constructing “salary supplements” at work. This polarity also characterizes the experience of the saleswomen at a humanitarian NGO, who were studied by Zoé Tinturier and who, depending on the employment conditions offered by the organization and their own individual trajectories, may decide to become more independent or, conversely, to double down on loyalty.

39 Altogether, the approaches opened up by this issue must, in our view, serve to stimulate scientific discussion. This discussion must aim to encourage the restoration of a field of anthropological and sociological research into work in Africa.


  • [1]
    Yann Gwet, “L’Afrique rêve sa jeunesse en start-up innovante… sans la construire,” Le Monde Afrique, May 9, 2016.
  • [2]
    Translator’s note: This quotation is our translation. Unless otherwise stated, all translations of foreign language material cited in this article are our own.
  • [3]
    The section of this issue devoted to book reviews aims to reflect this topicality by reviewing several recent works.
  • [4]
    He sees the “new catechism” of entrepreneurship as the most recent of the great political and ideological obstacles to democracy in Africa: “In other words, improving the functioning of the state meant drastically limiting its economic role. More market, it was claimed, was the solution. […] The question of democracy was thus depoliticized. […] It was reduced to the two standardized products of the development market: “good governance” and “the strengthening of civil society.” Today, these two products are themselves being supplanted by a new catechism: that of entrepreneurship, with is incubators, its start-ups, and its “young leaders.” It is true that the gospel of entrepreneurship corresponds better than that of governance to the current phase of globalized accumulation. Is this latter not characterized by the systematic deregulation of finance, one of the drivers of the political economy of inequality at the planetary scale?” (Mbembe 2022).
  • [5]
    Office de la recherche scientifique et technique Outre-mer (Office of Overseas Scientific and Technical Research), now renamed the Institut de recherche pour le développement (IRD, French National Research Institute for Sustainable Development).
  • [6]
    For a discussion of how the idea of globalization has been perceived and evaluated by historians, see Inglebert (2020).
  • [7]
    See, for example, the interview with the regional director of the ILO in Africa in the UN journal dedicated to the continent: Franck Kuwonu and Aneas Chuma, “Africa Grapples with a Jobless Growth,” Africa Renewal (April 2015),
  • [8]
  • [9]
    As a point of comparison, the working population grew by 13.5% in the same period.
  • [10]
    See Jean Copans’s review in the “Analysis and Reports” section in this issue.
  • [11]
    See Etienne Bourel’s review in the “Analysis and Reports” section in this issue.
  • [12]
    See Hélène Blaszkiewicz’s review in the “Analysis and Reports” section in this issue.
  • [13]
    See Cheryl Mei-ting Schmitz’s review of this book in the “Analysis and Reports” section in this issue.
  • [14]
    As shown by Alizèta Ouédraogo in her review in the “Analysis and Reports” section in this issue.
  • [15]
    The year 2022 marks seventy years since the publication of the thirteenth issue of the journal Présence africaine (1952), which was titled “Le travail en Afrique noire” (Work in Black Africa). Without entering into a discussion of its contents here, we can comment that it focused on industrial work and that its approach already involved establishing a dialogue between a variety of situated perspectives. It also contained contributions from Pierre Naville, one of the founders of the sociology of work in France, whose positivism contrasted with Alioune Diop’s foreword with its themes of negritude, and from Georges Balandier, in the form of fieldwork notes.
  • [16]
    Regarding this aspect in particular, research is currently being conducted by Guillaume Vadot, Alexis Roy, and Sidy Cissokho on the history of studies of work in Africa from the beginning of the twentieth century. Its initial findings will be used in a course at the EHESS in the second term of the 2021–2022 year.
  • [17]
    Coordinated by Stefano Bellucci and Andreas Eckert, the General Labour History of Africa (2019), reviewed in the “Analysis and Reports” section of this issue, is evidence of this contribution.

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Étienne Bourel
Laboratoire d’anthropologie des enjeux contemporains (LADEC, Research Center for the Anthropology of Contemporary Issues), University of Lyon 2.
Guillaume Vadot
Institut des mondes africains (IMAF, African Worlds Institute), CNRS, Paris, France
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