Nico van Staalduinen, who is Ghanaian by choice, published a letter online in March this year on the work ethic in Ghana and invited fellow Ghanaians to contribute to the conversation on the subject. You can access his letter under this link.
There was undeniable clarity in van Staalduinen’s expression of frustration at the work ethic of Ghanaian employees and service providers he’d met and I found the specific practices, non-performances and attitudes he highlighted familiar; very familiar in fact and for that reason, grotesquely comforting in the way a common ailment can be. I begin my response to his invitation from that comfort.
Interestingly, the President took up the same theme in his May Day address . His remarks agreed with van Staalduinen’s on many points and extended the list of anomalies in our work ethic into areas hitherto unmentionable in much of official Ghana. Areas such as, “We have no respect for the hours set aside for work … we pray, we eat, we visit during working hours. We spend hours chatting on the telephone when customers are waiting to be served, thereby increasing our labour costs. We take a week off for every funeral. And then we wonder why we are not competitive.”
History of the Economic Relationships
First, a historical perspective on economic relationships in the region we now call Ghana. We are a collection of peoples who share a common system of land ownership; a communal ownership from which all titles derive. It is reported that titles to some 80% of the landmass is traceable to communities which had possession and control of those lands through their governing chiefs and elders, from antiquity (see Land Ownership & Economization: A Rethink for Ghana , for example).
The remaining 20% are owned by the Republic as state lands, or the Republic in association with the original possessory communities, as vested lands. The land constituted the primary form of capital in the communities, including fishing rights to associated water bodies. It is my view that the prevalent form of its ownership had a defining impact on the development of both capital and labour in the region.
The communal form of ownership contrasted with the feudal regime which developed in Europe. There, the few owned much of the land, constituted the nobility, extracted rent from tenant peasants and accumulated surpluses which they classified as capital, differentiating it from the other two factors of production, land and labour, in classical economics. It appears to me that the feudal system of land ownership facilitated the emergence of a landless labour force.
Majority in that category offered themselves to the nobility as indentured servants, to keep body and soul together. A fewer number acquired skills and became journeymen and latterly, professional service providers. A small minority joined the band who are mostly portrayed in literature as mean merchants. Otherwise, they linked up with adventurers, as desperate explorers and settlers in new lands.
By contrast, in the region we now call Ghana, any who were able bodied and accepted as members of a community were entitled to a portion of the land, or primary capital, to farm on, or hunt in. Additionally, they could fish in the community’s water bodies, including adjacent seas. The size of their land holding was related to what they could possess, protect and control with the aid of members of their household. Therefore, there was an economic incentive to have many wives, children and close relations in one’s homestead. They constituted the source of labour to the agrarian entrepreneur. There were no landless, able bodied labourers available to hire on demand.
An ambitious farmer could buy and deploy slaves on his farm, in addition to his household members. He could acquire them as his portion of the spoils of war too, but always, on the social contract that he integrate them into his household and be responsible for their wellbeing and conduct in society, to the same extent that he was responsible for other members of his household. (Akosua Nketia Perbi offers an interesting narrative on this matter in her book, A History of Indigenous Slavery in Ghana).
The slaves became his wards in the community and were expected to protect the rights of the community to their primary source of capital, against hostile parties; just as other members of the community did. In that sense and in the sense that their efforts in promoting the enterprise were rewarded proportionately by their owners, they shared the proprietary passion for the enterprise with other members of the entrepreneur’s household, who were their co-workers, as I’ve pointed out. The head of the enterprise looked out for the interests of all his co-workers and attempted to assist them financially as best as he could, during challenging times. They looked to him to assist them with marriage, child naming, housing, funeral and other big spending needs and it was natural for him to step in on such occasions, because they were his household members.
This patriarchal model of employment changed with the introduction of foreign trading enterprises, with increasing urbanization and with the abolition of slavery. Workers in an enterprise no longer necessarily had a family bond, or master – slave relationship with their employer. Therefore, there was no longer a basis for the traditional proprietary passion they’d carried for the enterprise they were working on. It did not help their sense of commitment that many of these enterprises were owned by foreigners, or the tax exacting colonial government, in the case of public service delivery agencies. Neither did the separation of capital owners from labour help. That separation was formalised with the introduction of trade unions and collective bargaining. Now, just to be clear, I’m in no way advocating for, or condoning the practice of slavery. I’m merely describing a progression in labour relations in the region. Slavery is abhorrent and there is nothing positive about it. Can you purchase one additional day of your own life from any marketplace on earth, or beyond the earth?
A Way Out of Apathy, etc
It just may be that alongside other causes, this weakening of the proprietary passion among workers, who traditionally related with their employers in a patriarchal arrangement, birthed a culture of apathy towards the security and progress of the enterprise they work for. If that is true, then building a sense of proprietary interest in the workers of an enterprise should help cultivate a better work ethic among them.
My suggestion isn’t specifically for, or necessarily in favour of co-ownership arrangements, such as employee share ownership schemes. Some entrepreneurs may find that attractive. However, whatever instrument stirs a sense of belonging and provokes proprietary passion in the workforce will likely, have the desired effect of lifting their commitment above apathy and towards greater competitiveness and productivity. By that means, it will benefit all parties; including consumers of the goods or services the enterprise trades in.
I make further, more specific suggestions in my blog posts, Our Attitude to Trades & Labour and Our Attitude to Craftsmanship.