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Where have all the Workers Gone? Labour and Work in Ghana, 1951-2010

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The project

The project

This international project brings together scholars based in Germany, Ghana and the United Kingdom to research the contemporary history of labour and work in Ghana. It is funded jointly by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (UK) and the German Research Council. It involves seven researchers from four institutions: in Britain, the University of Cambridge; in Germany, Humboldt University in Berlin; and in Ghana, Cape Coast University and the University of Ghana.

The project addresses two partly conflicting trends in history and historiography. One is the tendency to analyse work "beyond wage labour" and focus increasingly on "informal" and "precarious" labour. This matches a critique of older assumptions that Africa would reproduce European patterns by becoming "proletarianized", with wage labour as the dominant form. Instead, the argument goes, the number of regular wage workers in postcolonial Africa did not grow as expected, while it was the category variously known as customary, informal or precarious labour that grew. The second trend includes the finding that the incidence of wage labour especially in rural areas across the continent has been seriously underestimated.​

This combination of observations is the starting point for an in-depth study of labour trends in decolonizing and independent Africa. Ghana makes an apt case study, because there is substantial labour historiography for the colonial era, and potentially excellent primary material for the post-colonial. It was in Ghana that the term "informal sector" was coined, and Ghana epitomises a broader African contrast in economic growth rates and labour relations between the earlier and more recent periods since independence. The project will develop a national overview but focus in detail on three areas - Accra, a cocoa-growing region, and a northern savanna region - selected to represent different aspects of the experience of labour. Research questions include the changing size and composition of the workforce, the changing structure of forms of occupations and employment, the real earnings of labour, labour market integration, the structure of informal work and entrepreneurship, migrant flows and regional inequality, and the relation between poverty, precariousness and work. All these issues are strongly gendered. Sources include interviews, official and unofficial archives, surveys, censuses, newspapers and court records.

The team
Prof. Gareth Austin

Gareth Austin

Gareth Austin is Professor of Economic History (1928) at the University of Cambridge. He has previously worked for the University of Birmingham, the University of Ghana, the Institute of Commonwealth Studies (London), the London School of Economics and the Graduate Institute of Geneva. He has numerous publications on Ghanaian, African, comparative and global economic history.

Prof. Andreas Eckert

Andreas Eckert

Andreas Eckert is professor of African history at the Humboldt University in Berlin. His research focuses on the history of Africa in the 19th and 20th centuries, in particular the history of the state, urbanization, resistance, historiography, the history of work, the history of colonialism, and the history of globalization.

The team

Prof. Akua Britwum

Akua Britwum

Akua O. Britwum is Associate Professor of Gender and Labour Studies at the Centre at the University of Cape Coast. Her teaching and research interests cover gender based violence, gender and economic policy as well as trade union democracy and informal sector labour force organization.

Dr. Nana Yaw

Nana Yaw Sapong

Nana Yaw Sapong is a Senior Lecturer at the Department of History at the University of Ghana.  specialized in the 18th to 21st-century social history of West Africa, with particular reference to Ghana. He is also a poet/novelist/creative writer, and an alumnus of the Institute for Humane Studies, George Mason University.

Dr. Igor Martins

Igor Martins

Igor Martins is a postdoctoral research associate at the Faculty of History at the University of Cambridge specializing in development economics, labor coercion, and colonial legacies. He is currently interested in labor market integration in post-independence Ghana.

Felix Yao Amernohu

Felix Yao Amenorhu

Felix Yao Amenorhu is a Ph.D. student at the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at the Humboldt University of Berlin. He studies long-term changes of labour relations within the agrarian economy of Northern Ghana.

Hedvig Lagercrantz

Hedvig Lagercrantz

Hedvig Lagercrantz is a Ph.D. student at the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at the Humboldt University of Berlin. Her research interests cover development topics in Sub-Saharan Africa and focus on the changing forms and structures of employment in the Ghanaian cocoa sector.

News & Events

News & Events

Cape Coast, Ghana



Cambridge, UK



Final workshop

Accra, Ghana


Work in progress

Work in progress

Researching labour and work in Ghana, 1951-2010: The economic context 

Gareth Austin

The purpose of the paper is to sketch the changing economic contexts in which the history of labour and work unfolded in Ghana over the sixty years examined by this project. The period is bookended by two events which signalled fundamental shifts in the country’s political economy. The year 1951 saw the first national elections in Ghana and the entry of African politicians into government in the British colony of the Gold Coast, under a system of ‘joint rule’, preceding internal self-government in 1954. The year 2010 marked the beginning of petroleum exports. This paper is organised around three themes: population growth, urbanisation, and - in a little more detail - economic growth. 

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We are grateful to the following supporters, without which this project would not be possible:
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