Roundtable VIII

Africans at work: Revisiting African labour history and the history of work in Africa

Tuesday, 22 March 2016, 13:30-15:00

Convenor: Andreas Eckert (Humboldt University Berlin)

Panelists: Julia Tischler (Basel University), Miles Larmer (University of Oxford), Thaddeus Sunseri (University of Colorado / re:work)

In its heyday between the late 1960s and early 80s the history of work in Africa has mostly been treated as the history of wage labour. The decreasing interest in labour history since then also reflected the fact that organized labour was on the decline in Africa, as elsewhere in the world. Unionization and workers’ solidarity had not brought about a radical political transformation, as many labour historians, among others, had hoped. In industrial regions like the Zambian Copperbelt global trade arrangements and neo-liberal economic policies had changed employment patterns, reduced union membership and denuded sectors that used to offer employees regularized wages and benefits. More recently, the labour history of Africa has been experiencing a modest comeback, moving away from the perspectives of the 70s and 80s. New studies attempt to identify structure and history where many observers see only „informality“ and pay heed to the ways in which people make their living beyond wage labour, on the margins, under circumstances that are both precarious and unpredictable. On the other hand it remains a crucial task of Africanist labour historiography to bring out the variety of ways in which wage labour became part of people’s lives in particular locations. This roundtable presents new approaches and themes in African labour history and focuses on both wage labour and other forms of work. It particularly looks at what people do when they work and why they do it.


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