African Engineers: Labour Productivity in Africa and Asia

In the mid 1980s it was generally understood that labour productivity in Ghana was low by international standards but the amount of hard data was limited. The Technology Consultancy Centre (TCC) of Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST), Kumasi, kept detailed records of its own production units over many years but apart from that there was only anecdotal information gained from visiting various foreign-owned plants in Ghana. However, this sparse data did suggest a significant difference between labour productivity in Ghana and in rapidly developing countries in Asia.

In 1977, the TCC director wrote a report of a six month study leave in India. He had studied the cottage textile industry and gathered data on the productivity of handloom weavers. The TCC had operated a handloom weaving production unit in Kumasi for several years and overall the output was close to one metre of cloth per weaver per day. In Uttar Pradesh, self-employed weavers using similar looms were found to be averaging about three metres per day.

When discussing this difference in productivity the first factors people mentioned were climate and the health of the weavers. Taken over the whole year the climate in Ghana is hotter and more humid than northern India and this probably had a small lowering effect on output. In terms of health, it was generally concluded that there was not much difference. Then it was thought that the critical factor might be that the Indian weavers were self-employed, but when some weavers were helped to become self-employed in Ghana their output only rose a little and this was mainly due to longer hours of working.

Data from other industries was only anecdotal. Engineering students from KNUST visited a sugar mill at Komenda in the Central Region of Ghana. It was under Pakistani management. One student asked the manager if the plant was making a profit and when he was told ‘no’ the student asked the reason why. The manager said that the problem was cutting the sugar cane in the fields where it grows. He couldn’t get the cane into the plant fast enough.

When asked for international comparisons the sugar mill manager said that in Australia, where productivity was highest, each labourer averaged about five tons a day of cut cane. In India and Pakistan the comparable figure was about two tons a day, but in Ghana they had never been able to reach one ton a day.

On another occasion KNUST students visited the British Aluminium Company’s bauxite mines at Awaso in the Western Region of Ghana. This is where ore is extracted to ship through the port of Takoradi to Britain, where it is processed into aluminium metal. The English managing director was asked if the plant operated at a profit. Once again the answer was ‘no.’ A student expressed his incredulity by exclaiming, ‘You can’t make a profit with our cheap labour!’ The managing director became quite angry at this remark and replied, ‘Don’t tell me that Ghanaian labour is cheap! It’s the most expensive in the world! With German labour at German wages I could make a profit!’

History may hold the clue to Ghanaians’ relaxed attitude to hard work. Until the last fifty years or so, life was relatively easy in Ghana. The population density was low, most people were farmers, food was plentiful and most people had enough to eat. In many Asian countries, however, population density was high, food was often scarce and life was much harder. So the Asians developed a culture that honoured hard work. The Hindus have an adage: ‘work is worship.’ This level of veneration did not exist in Ghana.

Asian countries have developed rapidly through the exploitation of cheap labour but in the absence of a strong work ethic, and with an expectation of high wages, Ghanaian labour is almost exploitation proof, as the unfortunate foreigners found at Komenda and Awaso. Higher productivity must be based upon better means of production: new technology. The population is growing fast and there are more and more people living in poverty. In time, more people might be prepared to work hard for low wages but this could be a remote prospect. Most people hope that Ghana will be rescued by technology before a Victorian era of sweated labour becomes necessary.

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