Ghana Life: Working Four Hours a Day

Ghana, like many countries in the modern world, has an unemployment problem, and the situation is particularly severe in relation to providing jobs for increasing numbers of school leavers. In modern society a job implies employment for seven or eight hours a day, five days a week, a working week being 35 to 40 hours. Many people dislike work, or at least they dislike the jobs they are compelled by economic necessity to undertake. Wouldn’t most people be happier if the hours were shorter and the available work was shared more equitably?

In his book ‘The Affluent Society’ published in 1958, the famous American economist, John Kenneth Galbraith, observed that according to anthropologists, when mankind lived by hunting and gathering, the work needed to sustain life amounted to about four hours a day. Many more hours needed to be worked after the invention of agriculture and it was no doubt during the ensuing long millennia that the idea of life dominated by work became widely accepted. However, Galbraith suggested that with modern labour-saving machines it was likely that the available work, shared out between the able-bodied willing workers, would again be reduced to about four hours a day.

In Ghana, in the last decades of the twentieth century, there was much evidence to suggest that although hours at work were long, the actual work activity filled only a fraction of the time. In Suame Magazine in Kumasi, which provides apprenticeships and employment for thousands of youth, work nominally extended throughout most of the hours of daylight, six days a week. Yet it was observed that much time was spent idly waiting for a customer to bring a job, and when a task was taken in hand there would be one man working and four men watching. Work undertaken in this pleasant and relaxed social environment comes close to Galbraith’s vision of the four hour working day, except that the worker is tied to the workplace throughout the leisure hours.

Within the span of recorded history, and almost within living memory, many Ashantis chose to earn their living as hunters. One of their main hunting grounds was in the south of what is now Brong-Ahafo Region; ahafo meaning hunters in the Twi language. If Galbraith’s anthropologists were correct, these hunters earned their livelihood working about four hours a day, even if they spent longer hours wandering in social intercourse with their companions. According to Galbraith’s theory, it might seem that their descendents working in the informal workshops of Suame Magazine had bypassed the agricultural and industrial revolutions in just a few generations, whereas the craftsmen themselves would claim to have merely preserved their traditional way of working.

Perhaps, part of the answer to providing work for all lies in preserving and extending the traditional social organisation of work. Let everyone who is willing and able, join the team and share the work as it comes to hand. The problem of an equitable sharing of the proceeds is another problem to which even Galbraith could give no final answer, although he made some useful suggestions and warned of the dire consequences if no solution was found.