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African Engineers: Apprentices and Profit

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African Engineers: Apprentices and Profit

In the kokompes, the informal industrial areas of Ghana, such as the vast Suame Magazine in Kumasi, the typical small auto-repair business consists of a master craftsman assisted by four or five apprentices. The apprenticeship system has been much criticised as a form of exploitation. The apprentices are not given a regular wage but only ‘chop money,’ just enough cash to buy food, and the hours of work are long, often twelve hours a day, six days a week, but on the whole the apprentices seem to be reasonably content with their lot and the apprenticeship is seen as providing a much sought-after and appropriate initiation into the career ahead. Some masters are more enlightened than others, providing better instruction and more pleasant working conditions. For those apprentices who encounter tyrants there is always the option of running away; an option that many take. In most workshops the atmosphere is relaxed and the pace of work unhurried. Much time is passed waiting for work to come, and when it comes there is the chance to watch someone else attend to it. When one’s own turn comes it is a welcome diversion.

Although the hours are long, absence for personal errands, sickness or attendance at funerals is readily granted. The pattern of discipline is domestic rather than industrial. For the new apprentice, only the work of his hands is new. The social atmosphere is entirely familiar to him, and to this extent he experiences far less trauma than his European counterpart who enters a strange new factory environment. If he has any complaint it is usually shortage of cash, and this problem is tackled by a number of means, some legitimate, and with a good deal of tolerance extended in most cases to the illegitimate.

The informal sector forms a bridge between the legitimate and the illegitimate, the formal sector and the underworld. It is this less-than-savoury aspect of the kokompes which makes them unpopular with the law enforcement agencies and the tax gathers. There is a tendency amongst those in authority to regard the kokompes as dens of thieves, and there is little doubt that certain criminal elements shelter in their midst. The makers of skeleton keys and jemmies find a ready market for their products in a society in which high unemployment and wide-scale poverty co-exist with conspicuous affluence, and the auto parts stores are not always averse to recycling some of the plunder.

Although the great majority of artisans and apprentices in the informal sector are not thieves, they are liable to bend the law to its West African limits. At times when imported spare parts are scarce, they are never to be found in the formal sector stores and service stations but only in the magazines and kokompes. The diversion is effected by master fitters putting to profitable use their links with the formal sector motor agencies. A brother in the stores department will ensure that all goods received from overseas are sold in bulk to the family spare parts store or fitting shop in the magazine. The sale is nominally legitimate and the correct ‘government-controlled’ price is paid but the opportunity is created for profit taking that in percentage terms would satisfy the insider dealers on the New York Stock Exchange.

The effective monopoly on the supply of all imported spare parts was a major factor in the rapid expansion of the informal sector in Ghana in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Vehicle owners taking their charges for repair at formal sector workshops were directed to the kokompe for the necessary spare parts. Soon the custom went straight to the kokompe where the job was done more quickly and with less inconvenience. By this means the formal sector workshops were cut out and the kokompes sucked all available business into their domain. The customer ended up paying more for his repair but the many mouths of the master’s extended family were well fed and all his sons and nephews became apprentices. Suame Magazine in Kumasi became an economic power that attracted an impressive new branch of Ghana Commercial bank with, it was claimed, the largest strong-room in the country.

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