Africa has a number of different labor systems that reflect an economy in the process of change. Still occupying an important role are the traditional forms of work and division of labor based on subsistence farming. Industrial capitalism has brought new forms of labor organization that have transformed Africa—without completely displacing the earlier systems.


Africa is still a largely rural continent, and the great majority of Africans work in agriculture. Although wage labor—working for pay—is increasingly common, it is limited mainly to urban centers and to regions of SOUTH AFRICA. African agriculture is based primarily on small family farms that grow crops both for personal consumption and for sale to markets. However, agricultural work is highly seasonal. In certain periods it requires intensive labor from many people; at other times there is not enough work to keep everyone employed. For this reason rural dwellers must frequently supplement their farm income with nonfarm wage labor. This often means traveling to urban or industrial centers that are far from home.

Many Africans are landless and have no control over agricultural production or farm labor. They must find employment as migrant workers or as wage laborers in agriculture or industry. Along with farmers looking for seasonal nonfarm employment, the landless form a large and floating pool of labor in most African nations. Many mines, factories, and farms of all sizes rely heavily on this floating pool. Despite its economic importance, though, wage labor in Africa suffers from low pay, poor working conditions, and lack of job security.


Labor migration, the movement of people to work, has long been a feature of African society. Before the colonial era, rulers often rounded up large groups of laborers to work in gold and salt mines or to build fortresses or other defensive works. People were usually forced to provide such labor, and seasonal migration for agricultural work was also common. When European nations colonized Africa, they sought to use the indigenous workforce as a ready source of cheap labor. Colonial policies were designed to ensure that African labor was available to the state for mines and plantations and to white settlers for agricultural and domestic help.

African workers preferred to avoid wage labor and to pursue the commercial opportunities that came with colonization. Those who lived near mines often made money by providing mine owners and workers with food, fuelwood, and transportation. Those near plantations frequently became sharecroppers or raised cash crops.

Unable to rely on these local workers, colonial enterprises often had to recruit wage laborers from rural areas where employment opportunities were scarce or working conditions and wages were poor. Colonial authorities frequently used local chiefs for recruiting workers, though private recruiters and state agencies also performed this task. When volunteer labor could not be found, Africans might be forced into service. Slave labor was still used on colonial plantations until after World War I, and workers in some colonies had to work in mines and serve in the army up until World War II. In some cases labor shortages prompted colonial officials to establish systems of indentured labor, bringing workers from India, China, and other foreign countries. Recruiting labor from distant areas gave certain advantages to employers, who could lie about wages and working conditions or change the terms of labor contracts once the worker arrived at the site. Mine workers were often housed in compounds near the mines, where food and shelter were inadequate and sickness and death were not uncommon.

For many migrant wage laborers, periods of employment alternated with long stretches of unemployment, during which workers returned to their farms and homes. This system remained in place because it served the needs of Africans as well as those of European employers. African workers wanted to maintain ties to rural homelands and claims to land, so they rarely moved permanently to a distant work site. In any event, colonial authorities seldom wanted the wives and families of workers to move to industrial centers, and blacks were generally discouraged from settling in the cities.

By the mid-1900s colonial policies regarding migrant labor were changing. In the 1940s, for example, copper mines in present-day ZAMBIA began to encourage workers’ families to settle near mine sites. Various other colonies adopted similar policies to stabilize the workforce. South Africa, on the other hand, continued its policy of long-distance recruitment and controlled black workers with laws restricting their movement within the country. Since APARTHEID ended in the 1990s, more migrant workers are applying directly to work in South African mines instead of being recruited. Labor migration to these mines continues because it provides jobs for workers who might not find employment otherwise.


Farming in Africa still requires a great deal of labor. The vast majority of African farmers are too poor to afford mechanized farm equipment, and their plots of land are too small for its use. Draft animals cannot be used in large areas of Africa because of the presence of the tsetse fly, which carries a virus that can kill livestock. Thus fields are hoed by hand instead of plowed, and tasks such as clearing land, weeding, and harvesting crops are done manually. Because of the importance of labor in agriculture, determining who performs what tasks and when is crucial for success.

Division of Labor

The heads of families are generally responsible for assigning people to different jobs. Gender and age are important factors in the customary division of labor. Men typically perform heavy jobs such as clearing brush, while women weed and harvest crops. Social and cultural factors may affect patterns of gender-based labor. For example, cash crops or new farm technologies introduced to a household are usually handled by senior men.

Traditional roles are sometimes modified to accommodate changes in the family. When members of the household are sick or injured, the assignment of tasks may change. If distant kin join a household, responsibilities may be rearranged. Death or the departure of a family member also affects labor patterns. For example, able-bodied men often work at jobs that take them away from their families for varying periods of time. Their absence shifts more responsibility for food production to women, children, and the elderly.

The introduction of cash crops during the 1800s added a new dimension to farm labor in Africa. Growing both food crops and cash crops required additional labor. This meant either working longer hours or hiring outside workers. Cash crops also undermined the social structure of rural Africa by creating divisions in households. Younger men often wanted to grow cash crops to earn money to buy manufactured goods. However, senior men traditionally controlled these crops. Many younger workers thus set up their own farms, which reduced the output of the family farms they left behind.

As a cash-based economy developed in Africa in the late 1800s, traditional heads of households found it increasingly difficult to provide for those in their care. Through their control of farm resources, elders had once been responsible for providing food, tools, bridewealth, and tribute. As money became increasingly important, young men found that they could, and often had to, acquire such items themselves. This situation affected the system of obligation between generations that was the basis of the traditional household. Elders lost a great deal of authority as well as the ability to control the labor needed to support the household.

Alternate Forms of Agricultural Labor

Households suffering from a labor shortage occasionally make use of communal labor, large work groups that provide labor in exchange for food and drink. However, many people cannot afford to feed all the workers. In some cases labor is exchanged for a promise to return the favor at a later date. The use of communal work groups has declined in recent years, and those who participate often demand cash payment or contracts to perform specific tasks. Today, large communal work groups are used mostly by commercial farmers.

Two other agricultural labor arrangements are the share contract and contract farming. Under a share contract, a person agrees to perform farm labor in exchange for food, shelter, and a piece of land of his own to work. This system relieves farmers of the need to pay wages and allows them to employ help at crucial times during the growing season.

Workers may also receive payment in the form of a percentage of the total crop, which they may then sell or use as they see fit. In contract farming a central export or food processing authority signs contracts with farmers, who agree to provide certain crops at set prices. The authority, often controlled by the government, also specifies the methods of production the farmers must use to grow the crops. Although contract farming involves guaranteed payments, it reduces the ability of farmers to negotiate prices for their product in the open market.


Although African mining and manufacturing rely heavily on migrant labor, several important changes have taken place in recent years. One change has been a decrease in irregular employment periods, with mine owners demanding that workers not return to rural homelands as frequently. Employee turnover rates have also fallen, while the number of those who choose mining as a permanent career has increased. The compound system, in which migrant workers live together in company housing at a work site without their families, has undergone some change as well. Some mining companies have begun to offer housing schemes to workers, building houses for them and their families near mines but away from the compounds, which often have high levels of violence. Such housing is still very limited, however. Some miners have brought their families to live in squatter camps or settlements where they can earn money through peddling, domestic work, or other forms of short-term employment.

Many Africans today work in the informal economy—making and selling crafts, clothes, tools, or other items, or providing services such as transportation or recycling metal. Most of these activities involve a business owner, one or two apprentices, and perhaps a few wage laborers. Apprentices are usually recruited from family, friends, neighbors, and customers. Although the terms and conditions of employment are irregular and wages are low, the informal sector is vital to the survival of many African households, especially in urban areas.

Domestic labor is also an important source of entry-level employment for many Africans. In the early years of the colonial period, poor white European women and black African men performed domestic service for white settlers. However, concerns about the mixing of races in such situations led to the replacement of white women with Africans.

Today, domestic service continues to employ African men and women as well as African youth of both sexes. Now, however, employers may be black or white. Wages for domestic service are low, and those who have other opportunities tend to leave as soon as they can. A number of labor unions have arisen in recent years to represent domestic workers, but the prospects for improving working conditions or wages seems poor. (See also Agriculture; Colonialism in Africa; Development, Economic and Social; Economic History; Gender Roles and Sexuality; Minerals and Mining; Peasantry and Land Settlement; Plantation SystemsSlavery; Unions and Trade Associations.)