Why don't African workers want to work overtime and make more money?

Eric Olander and Cobus Van Staden of The China Africa Project write about the state of freelancing in Africa and the problems with freelancing in Africa.

African Freelancer (File Photo)

I’m working hard trying to make money and my business creates a lot of jobs. We could create a lot more if we made more money but the productivity of workers is the problem. I tend to work project to project and if I get the project done well before the deadline, I could get many more and create more jobs. I try to get them to work over weekends, even offering them one and a half times their normal pay but they tell me they rather want to go to church. Why don’t they want to work harder if they can make more money?


- A Chinese businessman in Cameroon

We don’t want to pretend that we’re able to talk for African workers - working cultures are different in different countries and they have a lot of reasons for their choices, many of which we have no idea about.

That said, you have to keep a few things in mind about the history of work in Africa. In the first place, capitalist labor for money has a horrible history in Africa. Under colonialism traditional economies were destroyed with the intention of making it impossible for Africans to work anywhere else but in colonial businesses. At the same time, African populations were stripped of skills on purpose, so that they didn’t present competition for the colonials and could operate as cheap labor. Whatever the labor conditions of the pre-colonial era were, they were wiped out and replaced by a colonial economy which depended on black people doing all the worst work. Of course a lot has changed since then, but this legacy continues to shape African life.

For this reason, whatever the particular labor conditions in your factory is, you have to remember that working for a foreigner as a labourer low on the totem pole is always going to be a complicated position for an African to take, even though the jobs you provide help them and pay them a salary, and even though African governments are desperate for foreign investors like you to create more jobs.

In the second place, many Africans have a lot of community members to help. This means that instead of being paid well over the short term and rushing to get a contract done ahead of time in order to get a bigger payday for themselves (like it works in China), it actually makes more sense for them to stretch a somewhat lower salary over a longer period of time. This makes it a bit more sustainable because the job will last longer, which means that their entire group will be more secure for a while. Again - this is different from country to country, but versions of this problem exist all over Africa.

In the third place, you also have to remember that most African countries are very religious. People take church seriously. It is a big part of their lives and it shapes how they see the world. In fact, religion is becoming even more prominent across wide swathes of Africa - with both Pentecostal Christianity and Islam gaining many new followers. In other words - this might not be a fight you can win. It might make more sense to find other ways to make up for the lost hours, or to hire non-religious freelancers to cover the weekends. I know this doesn’t really solve your problem, but this is the point of cultural differences. Due to China’s history, it is now a largely atheist society, while in Africa the church has historically played a massive social role, providing emotional and material support through very bad times. The two societies are different, and the challenge now is to try and find ways to work together without forcing your workers to choose between their jobs and their religion.

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