Without further federal financial support, the risks of both closure and reopening are falling most heavily on workers at the economic margins — low wage workers, gig economy workers, tipped workers who make less than minimum wage. While the U.S. dynamics are unique, the economic burden of the pandemic is everywhere falling on marginalized workers, exposing some of the instabilities and inequalities of global capitalism.
That is the case in Ghana, a West African country where more than 80 percent of the population participates in an economy closely associated with the open-air markets and jitney buses found in cities throughout the Global South. Such jobs actually share many similarities with loosely regulated economic sectors and gig economies in the United States. Their razor-thin profit margins depend on close interactions between large numbers of people, challenging social distancing recommendations. Both the lives and incomes of workers in these sectors are at risk.
While Ghana’s government provided some social support at the beginning of the pandemic, including suspending water and electricity bills and easing banking and mobile money restrictions, these have done little to protect the country’s most vulnerable people. But the history of Ghana highlights both the underlying structural conditions that increase the vulnerability of these populations — particularly in times of crisis — and the powerful creativity that make these grass-roots economic systems work.
Today’s inequalities in West Africa have been shaped by the interconnected histories of colonialism and capitalism. Before Europeans arrived on the West African coast in the 15th century, the region was the headquarters of a thriving economy that connected local, regional and international markets in trade. Farmers and traders brought their goods directly to open-air markets for sale and barter. At major hubs like Accra, now Ghana’s capital, regional and long-distance trading networks often overlapped in a cosmopolitan economy of exchange that was controlled by Africans.
As the British consolidated their control over the Gold Coast in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, however, they sought to redirect African economies. Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, the colonial government imposed regulations that prioritized the economic fortunes of the British, while marginalizing indigenous entrepreneurs.
Passed under the guise of improving public health and safety, for example, municipal investments in markets, streets and neighborhoods were more often about “westernizing” Accra than actually supporting the welfare of its citizens. Elite residents and expats benefited from new trading quarters and favorable rents in the center of town. At the end of the workday, they would return to large houses in newly developing suburbs, complete with wide, paved roads, piped water and electricity.
Yet these investments did not always benefit local communities. For example, when the Accra Town Council invested in public markets, it often used the new construction as an opportunity to relocate “undesirable activities” to the outskirts of the city, disrupting the lives of the urban poor. Likewise, investments in a municipal bus system in the 1930s, which sought to reproduce public transport systems in Europe, were inadequate to serve the needs of the city’s residents who needed to travel back and forth to open-air markets for trading and shopping.
Increasing regulation and investment in infrastructure didn’t eliminate African economic activity, but it did marginalize the work of African entrepreneurs and ignore the interests of African residents.
State regulations sought to protect European businesses and enact European visions for colonial cities. But Africans responded with ingenuity. In the absence of adequate public infrastructure, for example, Accra’s residents created their own systems of transit. The trotro (or public minibus system) might be the most well-known.
Regulated and organized by drivers and vehicle owners, since the mid-20th century trotros have provided passenger transport through a network of routes across the city. These drivers provided transportation for the vast majority of the country’s workers, despite being considered outside the formal, regulated economy. Drivers worked closely with market traders, who brought food stuffs from farms and sold them in the city’s open-air markets alongside imported goods and locally manufactured products.
At times of economic crisis, however, workers like market traders and trotro drivers became useful scapegoats for government officials unable to support the lives of the poor. In the 1970s and 1980s, for example in the midst of a major economic depression, they were often labeled “profiteers” and cast as enemies of the state. As a result, the government criminalized their economic activities and withdrew investments in public spaces like markets and lorry parks.
In some cases, drivers and traders did use underground networks to bypass the official regulations that restricted the opportunities of average citizens. However, just as many drew on creative problem-solving skills and local networks as part of legitimate business practices. Regardless, their work remained the beating heart of the country.
More recently, Ghana has been one of the continent’s fastest-growing economies, with increases in GDP growth, private consumption and industrial production, fueled in part by the discovery of oil in 2007. Indeed, some parts of the economy have grown dramatically particularly in the service and tourism industries where foreign investment, including Ghana’s recent “Year of Return” initiative in 2019, has expanded opportunities for middle-class Ghanaians.
And yet, as many as 91 percent of women and 80 percent of men still work as artisans, traders, drivers, roadside hawkers and cooked food sellers. Others operate chop bars (local restaurants) and drinking spots (local bars), which are more accessible than the coffee shops, bistros and shopping malls of Accra’s middle-class.
In the current crisis, these workers are once again being targeted in debates over public welfare. Systems introduced to ensure minibus (or trotro) drivers were following social distancing recommendations required drivers themselves to pay fees to be recognized. Porters (often young women from Ghana’s northern regions known as kayayei) protested the lack of government support and protection in urban markets, seeking out their own masks even as their meager incomes dwindled.
In criticizing this work, however, government officials and members of the public alike fail to recognize the historical conditions that gave rise to these sectors and place already vulnerable workers at greater risk. What’s more these workers are once again developing creative responses — borne out of both necessity and scientific/technical ingenuity — that are shaping national public health strategies across the continent, as Afua Hirsch, Jina Moore and Nanjala Nyabola have pointed out. How people are making do with less, using common-sense solutions and low-tech alternatives to prevent disease spread, should be getting much more attention in the United States and the United Kingdom, where there are ongoing struggles to expand access to testing and limit spread.
Recognizing these achievements does not negate the real challenges. The emergence and persistence of work that is needed but devalued and criminalized should also provoke us to reflect on the inequalities and limits of prevailing systems and models for economic development on both local and global scales. Open-air markets and minibuses are often held up as symbols of poverty and failed state structures unique to Africa. But workers in these spaces face the same conditions as America’s “essential” workers: low wages, precarity, health disparities and unequal access to health care, unsafe environmental conditions, limited access to basic resources like water and healthy food — even as their work ensures the rest of society can function. These are global problems that require us to look beyond our local communities right now to think critically about where our current structures come from. Only then might we be able to see possible alternatives.