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The rise and rise of agricultural wage labour: evidence from Ethiopia's South, c.950-2000.

The formation of a class of agricultural wage labourers in Africa has been a complex and diverse process. The conventional wisdom that agricultural wage labour was either a cash crop-induced practice or a colonial enterprise closely linked with colonial, private or state-sponsored schemes, as with Gezira in the Sudan, appears to be an oversimplification of a complex and diverse historical process. For example, Jay O'Brien (1983: 16) asserts that there was no wage labour market in the Sudan prior to the beginning of British colonial administration in 1898, and hence that the development of capitalist agriculture and therefore agricultural wage labour was spurred by a non-African, exogenous force. In this article I demonstrate that the interplay between colonialism, capitalist penetration and agricultural wage labour followed a very different trajectory in Ethiopia. In the first place, the Ethiopian setting was different from the rest of sub-Saharan Africa in that European colonialism had only a very brief sojourn in Ethiopia, from 1935 to 1941. Even this very short interval, in a country proud of its 3,000-year-long independent history, saw a turbulent anti-colonial resistance that never allowed Italian colonialism to concentrate on schemes of capitalist agriculture. Therefore, the penetration of agrarian capitalism had less to do with colonialism in Ethiopia than it did elsewhere; the development of agricultural wage labour followed a very specific course.

This article provides fresh insight into the various processes whereby agricultural wage labour developed without the experience of colonial agriculture, mining or precolonial cocoa--or groundnut-based commercial farming. While recognizing the interface between agrarian capitalism and hired labour, I argue that there were multiple other regional and national developments that led to the use of hired labour as a standard practice on African farms during the postcolonial period. The main story articulated in this study explores how the penetration of capital, through commercial agriculture, sparked off the practice of hiring labour. It posits that this process did not necessarily involve a linear transition to the hegemony of wage labour and the capitalist mode of production, as Marxist writers anticipated. (1) A range of factors, many specific to the Ethiopian context, explain this trajectory. The various historical developments that are discussed in this article as being responsible for the discontinuities in--and revival of--wage labour in this area show why Western development models fail to explain African particularities.

Chief among these local realities was the endurance of the traditional farming system side by side with capitalist farming. Indigenous relations of production did not die out even during the last quarter of the twentieth century, and they continued to linger on in parts of Africa where plantation and mining predominated. (2) Despite some regional variations, the literature on African peasant economies emphasizes what was widely popularized in the 1970s as 'the household production system'. This system was chiefly characterized by smallholder cultivation and, most importantly, by its reliance on family labour. The basic assumption was that agricultural production was aimed at providing the basic needs of a family and hence individual peasant households remained labour self-sufficient (Berry 1984: 74-6: Eicher and Baker 1982: 47). Thus, the fact remains, as will be shown below, that local farmers for most of their histoiy have tended to practise traditional forms of production in which the labour of family members remains pivotal. This implies that there has been space for the household production system and its labour rule to coexist with new forms of labour mobilization or organization.

Studies are divided on the socio-economic impact of labour migration. The dominant argument in the literature is that it causes considerable economic damage in the areas of out-migration, in part by robbing whole generations of energetic young people (Stichter 1985: 31-4; Morapedi 1999: 198-9; Kowet 1978: 86-100) (3) However, others subscribe to the idea that migrancy did little harm to rural life, arguing that the absence of over half the able bodies from rural routine due to migration brought many concrete benefits to the subsistence economy through remittances. Similarly emphasizing the positive side are those who argue that migration enables the continuation of some forms of 'traditional' culture and values. But few writers consider how migrants lived when they arrived in their new homes, and what factors inclined them to settle.

The few studies concerned with migrant labour in Ethiopia (Bahru 2008: 132; Beyene 1985: 3, 21; Regassa 1993: 42-4) centre on what has been known as 'Kembata labour'. This is a labour force that had its origins in one of the Awrajas (an administrative unit smaller than a province during the imperial period) within the former Shawa Province in central Ethiopia. The establishment of sugar estates in the Wonji and later the Metahara area in the Awash Valley, by a Dutch company called Handelsvereeniging Amsterdam (or HVA) in the early 1950s, was a landmark in the genesis of the migrant labour system in Ethiopia. Before the decade ended, the Wonji area had become the largest market for migrant labourers in the country (Bahru 2008: 131). In later years, neighbouring communities such as Hadiya and Wolayita joined the Kembata as areas of labour reserves for the sugar plantations and factories. However, little has been said about the social and economic dynamics that unfolded in the areas of in-migration, or the life of the migrants who eventually decided to become permanent settlers. (4) The analysis presented here seeks to fill this gap by exploring how migrant labourers integrated with their host communities. It focuses on the changing patterns of labour mobilization in one of the villages where commercial agriculture started to make significant headway as early as the 1950s, arguing that the organization of farm labour was influenced not only by factors such as culture, tradition, the farming system itself and agro-ecology, but also by political regimes. First, government intervention, as evidenced by the policy shift in favour of commercial agriculture from the late 1950s, played an important role in encouraging the debut of agricultural wage labour. The imperial government, determined to achieve agricultural modernization at the expense of 'backward' peasant production, adopted three consecutive 'Five Year Development Plans' in the years from 1957 to 1974. Later, the Derg government followed a socialist or Marxist path and, adopting agrarian policies informed by Stalinist thinking, collectivized agriculture. This, for a period, undermined the development of smallholder production and, in parallel, the commodification of wage labour: the system relied instead on the unpaid labour of members of each cooperative (Dessalegn 1993: 36; Stahl 1989: 31-2). Finally, collectivized agriculture was abolished and a new 'mixed economy policy' announced as government aimed to liberalize the command economy. Through all these changes, the political process influenced and shaped the economic one, laying the ground for a context in which labour migrants eventually became settlers.

The study draws on information from archival sources (such as official correspondence) that date from the immediate post-liberation period when Haile Selassie's government was preoccupied with the work of revitalizing imperial power. They are housed in the Shafae Te'zaz Wolda-Masqal Tariqu Memorial Archive Centre of the Institute of Ethiopian Studies (IES) in Addis Ababa. Most importantly, however, it uses oral materials collected through a series of visits to the study area for a little over a decade since 1999. The oral data was gathered through interviews with knowledgeable elders, local notables, ordinary farmers and active participants in some of the major events discussed in the text, which have been carefully cross-checked against one another to prove validity, and used as inputs for analysis and reconstruction of the stories narrated. Secondary sources informed the study in areas as diverse as agriculture and farming systems, new and old concepts in development, labour as a global phenomenon and land tenure.

Land, capitalist penetration and the genesis of wage labour in northern Sidama

The agricultural system practised in northern Sidama during the period under study epitomizes the model of peasant agriculture: or, more specifically, the 'household production system'. With regard to labour supply, this theory of African peasant economies purports that individual households are labour self-sufficient (Berry 1984: 74, 76). Owing to unique local developments, a wider variety of labour regimes had been operational on the agricultural fields of northern Sidama. The systems of labour mobilization used by cash croppers at different times during the period under study included family labour, community labour and wage labour. Each of these systems was structured according to its legal and social context. Each had a distinct governing pattern of recruitment as well as terms and conditions of work.

The core area with the oldest tradition of agricultural wage labour in northern Sidama is the locality generically known as Wondo Ganat, located some 270 kilometres to the south of Addis Ababa, and 15 kilometres to the south-east of Shashamane. (5) Wondo Ganat is a broad designation for a poorly delineated region with frequently changing administrative borders in history. (6) Emperor Haile Selassie himself is said to have coined this name first, perhaps without serious consideration as to the spatial limits of the area. It constitutes the northern part of the Sidama zone, which is one of the thirteen zones (administrative units) into which the largest regional state in contemporary Ethiopia, the Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples Region (SNNPR), (7) is divided.

The early introduction of a wage labour system into this area was closely interlinked with the imperial land grants of the late 1940s and 1950s. It was these grants of large estates of land and the subsequent introduction of coffee cash cropping that paved the way for a huge translocal movement of labour into northern Sidama. Most of the recipients of these land grants were absentee landowners. The earliest of these grantees were members of the royal family, the Empress, Etege Menen and Le'ul Mekonen Haile Selassie (the Duke of Harar), who received ten gashas of land each in Wondo Ganiit (one gasha equals forty hectares). (8) In the same document, the names of Princess Tenannaworqe (the eldest daughter of the Emperor) and two other royals are mentioned as recipients of five gashas of land each in Wondo Ganat. Furthermore, a report about the execution of a qcilad (land measurement) by a certain Mekonen Teshala states that the Emperor made an offer to seventeen high-ranking government officials and dignitaries in 1952 of land within Fitawrari Jula Shube's jurisdiction. (9)

One recent study notes some other 'big names' as landowners in pre-1975 Wondo Ganat. Princess Ayda Desta, Ras Andargachew Mesay, Woyezro Qonjit Abenet, Gerazmach Nadew Gebra Tsadiq, Ato Makurya and his son Taka Makurya were just a few of these. According to this study, the Orthodox Church and the Haile Selassie I Foundation, which used to own about sixteen and ten gashas of land respectively, were institutions upon which the Emperor had conferred land rights in Wondo Ganat (Zerihun 1999: 29). Despite this fragmentary information from different sources, it is not easy to establish conclusively who got what in the process. Nevertheless, the fact remains that the greater proportion of Wondo Ganat's land had been placed under the ownership of a few nonresident landowners. Some were royals; others were members of the gentry and civil servants.

However, most of these grantees were initially uncertain about what they were going to do with their landed estates. Two major factors help explain why the new grantees ventured into commercial coffee plantations, which, in turn, almost instantly paved the way for the debut of a system of hired labour on the farmlands of northern Sidama. First, the Imperial Edict of 1955, which permitted the conversion of maderya land (land given in lieu of salary) to freehold land, emboldened a sense of ownership and confidence among the new grantees. Thenceforth, owners of land in Wondo Ganat were virtually free, to all practical purposes, to decide what to do with their land. Some leased their land to enterprising individuals, while others rented it to tenants. The rest of them established commercial farms of their own, largely specializing in coffee cultivation. The experience of Prince Mekonen Haile Selassie (the Duke of Harar) is an illustrative example of the latter. In 1956, the Prince decided to start coffee plantations on his newly acquired ten gashas of land and evicted the gebbar settlers of the Wotara-Qachama locality. Local farmers were dislocated from their home areas in Wotara-Qachama and forced to move to the adjoining locality of Shasha-Qaqqalle. Some 250 farmers were forced to settle on only three gashas of land, which to this day holds the name Marefya (resting place). (10)

The second stimulus for the proliferation of commercial farming in Wondo Ganat came from the success stories of a few Italian-owned agricultural firms that had existed in Wondo Ganat and its environs since the Italian period. Eike Haberland mentions three of them which he was able to identify during his research in the region in the mid-1950s. These were the Bleys coffee plantation in the north, Rapetti Horticulture at the centre and the Colaris coffee farm in the south (Haberland 1963: 344). A recent study of Italian agricultural and land policy in Ethiopia makes specific reference to an Italian farmer named Mauro Rapatti as owning an agricultural estate on 800 hectares of land in Wondo Kella, which was situated some 6 kilometres to the north of Basha Town, the present capital of the Wciriida (the lowest-level administrative unit in Ethiopia since imperial times). After liberation, the ownership of this farm was transferred to a company owned by a certain V. Pettinelli under a new name, Awassa Farm (Haile Mariam Larebo 2006: 292-3).

Against this background, the early 1950s was a period of remarkable transformation in the agricultural history of northern Sidama. A number of agricultural entrepreneurs--Ethiopian and foreign nationals--flocked to the area to try their luck as commercial farmers. The names of these early entrepreneurs, who are still remembered by elderly informants of Wondo Ganat, include Dr Thomson (a British physician), Mr Ottenclli and Mr Olibetto (both Italians), Justin Van Billion (a Belgian) and Mr Hard (a Frenchman). There were a number of Ethiopian entrepreneurs, among whom Dr Mulat appears to have been one of the earliest and the most prominent. Most of these entrepreneurs did not have land in Wondo Ganat. Rather, they came hoping to get access to cultivable land through some sort of lease arrangement locally known as 'kontrat' (presumably from the English word 'contract'). Indeed, according to informants, most of these individuals were able to enter into 'contract' arrangements with members of the royal family and other new grantees who had recently received land rights from the Emperor (Zerihun 1999: 30-1). (11)

Coffee was the dominant crop that attracted the attention of this new breed of farmer. Available data warrants the conclusion that almost all of these entrepreneurs started coffee plantations in Wondo Ganat soon after their acquisition of cultivable land (ibid.). The dramatic expansion of commercialized coffee farming in Wondo Ganat during the 1950s and 1960s was responsible for the introduction of agricultural wage labour into the wider region of northern Sidatna.

The resulting arrangement was not akin to a subsistence-level peasant agriculture that produced coffee for domestic consumption and sold the available surplus to supplement household income. Rather, it was a large-scale system of coffee farming that was introduced to the area by incoming entrepreneurs who also brought in external capital. However, the impact of this revolution on the traditional faming system of the local population was slow and minimal. This was because, despite it becoming dominant on Wondo Ganat's farmland in so short a period of time, commercial agriculture did not fully absorb or displace the traditional farming system run by the local peasantry.

The high labour demand that resulted from the new coffee-based commercial agriculture is worthy of consideration here. Studies on West African agriculture show that a major effect of a booming commercial agriculture on a traditional farming system was the strain it placed on the existing labour supply. The old labour regime, fit only for the production of food staples, fell short of satisfying the labour requirements of commercial agriculture. Therefore, commercial farmers had no choice but to make some important adjustments to the traditional system of labour mobilization (Swindell 1985: 66). The onset of commercial coffee farming in Wondo Ganat in the 1950s called for similar adjustments in the way in which labour was organized on the new coffee farms. Commercial coffee farmers' greatest challenge was the provision of an agricultural labour force of sufficient magnitude to satisfy the demands of large-scale commercial coffee farming. The experiences of commercial agriculture in other parts of Africa suggest two alternative strategies. One is internal (local) rearrangement. However, this was not viable given the circumstances of our study area. The household production system characteristic of the peasant agriculture of the area absorbed whatever labour force was available. Hence, there was no local surplus labour to be deployed on the new coffee farms.

Instead, farmers had to turn to the second alternative: soliciting external sources of labour (Swindell 1985) from beyond Sidama territory--a situation that spurred a translocal movement of agricultural labour during the subsequent decades. Migrant labourers from three distinct regions at the north-eastern edge of the present regional state of SNNPR--namely, Kembata, Hadiya and Wolayita were willing to work for a prescribed wage and filled the void on the new coffee farms. Whether the new entrepreneurs had this labour force in mind when they conceived their ventures is difficult to say. There is no clear evidence that this happened by design.

One thing that can be said on the basis of available sources is that the Kembata, Hadiya and Wolayita regions had suffered from a shortage of arable land. This had already led to labour migration to other areas, chiefly to the sugar cane plantations of the Awash Valley (Bahru 2008: 132; Regassa 1993: 41-60; Beyene 1985: 3, 121). The increasing influx of people from those areas to Wondo Ganat might thus have been the result of widely circulating information about the new transformation taking shape in northern Sidama. That was how a large number of young jobseekers from those places journeyed to Wondo Ganat in the hope of earning wages in return for their labour.

It should be noted that land scarcity is not the sole determinant of labour migration. Migratory labour is multifaceted in terms of its features and character. The literature distinguishes between four major types of migratory labour: seasonal, circular, international and permanent migration (Ellis 2000: 69-71; Stichter 1985: 1-3). The form that came to predominate in Wondo Ganat conformed to the latter type: '[It] implies that the family member makes a long duration move to a different location ... and sets up domicile at destination' (Ellis 2000: 71). It is this influx and permanent relocation of the Kembata, Hadiya and Wolayita into the study area that partly explains the present heterogeneity in the demographic profile of Wondo Ganat and its environs.

Once it was introduced, it did not take long for wage labour to become the dominant and most prevalent form of labour organization on the coffee farms of Wondo Ganat in the 1960s and 1970s. In those decades, the influx of migrant workers continued unabated up until the outbreak of the Ethiopian revolution and the subsequent Land Proclamation of 1975. It briefly ceased, together with all normal agricultural routines on the plantations, due to the instabilities and uncertainties of the early days of the revolution.

At this juncture, we should consider what happened to the thousands of migrant labourers who, despite making brief annual visits to their home areas, resided almost permanently in Wondo Ganat. A handful capitalized on whatever opportunities the new environment offered and promoted themselves to higher levels in the structure of the existing labour organization. A good example is the story of A bye Kaltebo, who made his debut in Wondo Ganat as a migrant labourer but eventually became a Kabbo (headman) on the coffee farm of Princess Tenannaworqe Haile Selassie. Later, he became one of the most renowned commercial farmers in the area. A little before the outbreak of the 1974 revolution, the likes of A bye Kaltebo and Tirkasso Habta-Maryam got lease-holding subcontracts for themselves from land leasers and started plantation ventures of their own, relying on the wage labour of fellow Kembata and Hadyia kinsfolk. (12)

Nevertheless, such success stories do not represent the fate of the large majority of Kembata, Hadiya and Wolayita migrant workers in Wondo Ganat and in the rest of northern Sidama. The post-revolutionary land proclamation of 1975 represents a further episode in the long story of the integration of these peoples with the local community. To these migrant workers, the proclamation offered a very limited chance of realizing their dream of becoming owners of a tract of land in their new area of domicile. On the basis of the promise of equitable distribution of rural land expressed in the proclamation, now they could claim a plot of their own. Presumably, this was based on Article 6, no. 1 of the proclamation, which stipulated that 'any tenant or hired labourer shall have possessory right over the land he presently tills', and on the fact that a joint body of officers drawn from the peasant associations of Wondo Ganat made a ruling or 'let one retain what he previously holds' (Girma 2011: 15). However, the hunger for land of migrant workers who had already made Wondo Ganat their new home could not be addressed by this ruling alone. This was simply because these people did not have the tiniest parcel of land on which to establish a claim.

In line with the land proclamation, the first land redistribution in Wondo Ganat was put into effect in April 1976. Total available land was measured and allotted per household on the basis of family size. An attempt was made to accommodate the former migrant workers in the process. In the first place, their right to own land in that locality was recognized, despite fierce contestation from those who claimed that migrants were not indigenous. This was executed by assigning all landless migrant workers in the area to one of the existing peasant associations so that they would be eligible for a share of land in the course of the distribution. Although there were complaints and controversies about the size and quality of the plots they received, the land redistribution of April 1976 turned the majority of the migrant workers into owners of a strip of land: a triumph of symbolic significance for them. It was a hard-fought gain for workers who were regarded as outsiders and strangers and widely referred to among the local people as the 'barari' (those who fly): a term implying their recent arrival (Girma 2011: 17-18). The intention that underpinned such a tag was not simply to scorn 'outsiders' but also to debar them from acquiring land.

The euphoria of the revolution and the land proclamation subsided after a few months. The land redistribution of April 1976 hastened the restoration of normal agricultural life in peasant households and plans for the way forward. It was the subsequent revival of peasant agriculture on the newly claimed private plots that resuscitated the need for hired labour, although not on the same scale as in the days of pre-revolutionary commercial agriculture. The migrant workers who were familiar with the operational principles of agricultural wage labour showed readiness to work on someone else's farm for financial remuneration. Now they needed the wages to supplement their meagre incomes. (13) It is difficult to say whether the system of wage labour was a conspicuous form of labour mobilization on the farmlands of northern Sidama during the years 1976-79. Yet, it was still there as a complement to other forms of labour mobilization traditionally used by local farmers.

Wage labour, collectivization and beyond

The perpetuation of the system of wage labour in Wondo Ganat and its environs was once again halted by the establishment of peasant producers' cooperatives (PPCs) in the area in August 1979. The Derg government pursued a vigorous programme of cooperativization in the 1980s. The military government passionately supported peasant cooperatives and relied upon them as viable agents of rural development. Responsiveness by local officials, favouritism shown to PPCs and their members, and different forms of pressure and intimidation on nonmember smallholders helped these enterprises grow and expand in the study area throughout the 1980s.

However, both the founding principles of PPCs and their practical applications contravened the system of wage labour that had been at work thus far in northern Sidama. For example, individual farmers were admitted to PPCs on condition that they contribute their land, their oxen and their labour. This is indicative of the fact that PPCs never used hired labour in any of their productive endeavours; rather, they depended fully on the labour of their members. Additional confirmation of the centrality of labour--and the PPCs' growing interest in controlling that of their members--comes from the practice of dividing the harvest between members based on 'attendance'. This was calculated according to records kept of the number of hours or days that members were available for agricultural work (Girma 2011).

The later abolition of PPCs following the announcement in March 1990 of the 'mixed economy policy' (a measure aimed at liberalizing the prevailing command economy) came as a shock to participants in the production systems that had evolved in those areas where these institutions had predominated. In a locality called Wondo Wosha, for instance, PPCs were officially dissolved in July 1990 at the insistence of their members. Land and other properties of the PPCs were distributed among members in an orderly manner, with the technical assistance and supervision of officials from Shashamane Warada office of the Ministry of Agriculture. (14)

What followed in the wake of this phenomenon in 1990 was the gradual restoration of smallholder agriculture as a dominant production system, replacing collective agriculture. Informants recall that this historic turn of events in 1990 made farmers once again owners of their labour and their farm land (Girma 2011). This development revived the decision-making power of individual farmers, especially in regard to crop choice and labour allocation. In consequence, farmers started to allocate much of their land and labour to high-yielding crops such as khat (15) and sugar cane. Since then, almost the entire Wondo Ganat has witnessed a phenomenal expansion of these as significant cash crops.

Various external factors were responsible for the dramatic boom in the production and trading of these cash crops. One of these was farmers' reassertion of their right to choose what crops they wished to plant. Along with these local political developments, indigenous knowledge about local ecology and environment must have bolstered farmers' optimism about these cash crops. Affirmation that farmers had made the right choice of crop came not in a matter of decades but in just a few years.

The fact that khat and sugar cane enjoyed the highest priority among farmers in the area gave an impetus to the resuscitation and perpetuation of the wage labour system that had been briefly interrupted during the PPC days. It is an established fact that sugar cane agriculture is labour intensive; farmers are reluctant to rely on personal or family labour, not only due to the hard labour and tenacity required at the time of cultivation, but also because of the injuries and wounds sugar cane often causes at the time of harvest. (16)

There seem to be contradictions in the literature with regard to the labour requirements of khat cultivation. For example, Goldsmith (1988: 148), in his study of khat agriculture and trade in Kenya, points out that khat cultivation is labour intensive. Kennedy (1987: 139), who did research on khat and brought the subject to the attention of the wider academy, held similar views. On the other hand, Ezekiel (2004: 73) and Amare and Krikorian (1973: 366) are of the opinion that khat farming requires little labour. Notwithstanding these contradictory stances, empirical data indicates that khat cultivation, especially when done on a commercial scale, can be labour intensive. It was far less so when it was just a backyard plant thirty or forty years ago, but that is no longer the case in this area. Widely expanding irrigated khat agriculture has made khat farming more and more demanding in terms of labour requirements.

The rapid expansion of khat agriculture since the early 1990s has led to the widespread use of hired labour on the khat farms of the wider region. Khat is now harvested systematically three to four times a year. The sugar cane-based agriculture in the north-western peripheries of Wondo Ganat have exerted a similar influence on the pre-existing tradition of wage labour in the region. The levels of additional labour required became increasingly unbearable for farmers, thus making wage labour a viable alternative. (17)

The coffee plantations of northern Sidama had pioneered a wage labour system from about the middle of the twentieth century onwards. However, using hired labour on private holdings, especially on khat farms, is a relatively recent practice. Informants are unanimous that the use of wage labour on peasant plots is relatively recent. Unprecedented urban demand for khat and the ensuing expansion of cultivation in the area from about the last decade of the preceding century were often cited by informants as the causes of a rising labour demand well beyond the capacity of traditional sources. Some of these informants, more specifically, cite the years 1992 and 1993 as landmarks in the widespread use of hired labour on khat-producing peasant holdings. (18) This makes sense considering the pressure local farmers faced to meet the increasing market demand for the shrub in that decade.

A common denominator in the wage labour system of the sugar cane--and khat-producing localities of contemporary northern Sidama is that migrant labour remains the major source of labour supply. The former migrant workers, or their descendants, have continued to take up all the available jobs on khat and sugar cane farms over the last three decades. But it should be added here that in the south-eastern parts of Wondo Ganat, the Kembata, Hadiya and Wolayita migrant workers faced competition from wage workers coming from the south and south-western Sidama after the turn of the new millennium. They are known to the local people as the 'Aleta', in reference to their home wcirada. (19) A few of them come from Harbegona and Bansa Wariidas, and probably from other 1Varadas of the Sidama zone too, but 'Aleta' has become their generic name regardless of their actual place of origin. (20)

Unlike the Kembata, Hadiya and Wolayita workers, the 'Aleta' are seasonal migrant labourers. From the month of February onwards, crowds of them stream into the town of Basha (the present capital of Wondo Ganat wcirada) seeking work. As the rainy season builds up--around the end of July and the beginning of August--they return home with their earnings, staying there until January. As the period from August to January is the season of coffee harvesting and selling, there is no shortage of cash and the 'Aleta' are not greatly attracted by wage employment on khat farms far away from their homes. This cycle of seasonal labour migration is illustrative of the pattern of a translocal movement of wage workers in parts of northern Sidama in recent years. The local population rarely considers the option of providing their labour for sale. At least at present, one can observe some degree of contempt among the locals towards those who work on somebody else's farm for money.

Over the past three decades, the best-known markets in which sugar cane and khat farmers of the area have recruited agricultural wage workers, in order of size and importance, are those at Wosha, Basha and Kella. Every morning, varying numbers of jobseekers attend these markets. The most experienced ones are those who arrive with their tools and agricultural implements; this is taken as a sign that they will demand a higher daily wage. As at the beginning of 2012, the working day lasted from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m., with a one--to two-hour lunch break. (21)

The rate of wages, the working hours and the living conditions of these agricultural labourers in the region under discussion have undergone remarkable changes. Wages, like other marketable commodities, are subject to change, especially in a situation where the price of other commodities is constantly on the rise. One informant, who came from Wolayita in 1966, had the following story to tell.
   When I first came here, coffee plantations offered us jobs in
   return for daily wages. Our major assignments included canal
   digging, clearing fields and planting coffee trees, for a token pay
   of only 0.50 Ethiopian cents. I remember that the pay slightly rose
   to 0.75 cents at about the outbreak of the revolution. (22)

Another informant, who came from the Kembata area in 1960, agreed with his contemporary from Wolayita with regard to the rate of pay for daily labourers around the middle of the 1960s and throughout the early 1970s. But his account of the working and living conditions of the time is more vivid:
   When I came here first and started working as a farm labourer,
   thirty or forty of us were organized under one supervisor whom we
   used to call 'Kabbo' [headman], usually a person closer to the farm
   owner [who] won the trust of the supreme boss. We were supposed to
   work all day long under difficult conditions, especially at the
   time of coffee planting and harvesting. At the early stage, we did
   not totally cut our contacts with our native areas. The farm owners
   had the responsibility of providing us with shelters. They built
   spacious wooden huts covered with grass which could accommodate
   fifty to sixty workers at a time. In those good old days the belly
   was God's responsibility. We used to eat what we were able to get.
   Interestingly enough we even used to save some part of our earnings
   which we desperately needed when we planned to visit our home
   areas. Some of us even had families we left behind. At about the
   early 1970s farm owners began to allow us to build small huts of
   our own on the fringes of their farms. We later realized that the
   motive of such benevolence was getting someone that stands to ward
   off wild animals from messing up the farms. This gave a glimmer of
   hope for some of us to bring our wives, either new or previously
   married. The Land Proclamation of 1975 and the subsequent land
   distribution had been crucial for most of us to opt for permanent
   residence in Wondo Ganat. (23)

The memories of a younger man, the son of Baqala Baza, the first informant cited above, provide an interesting contrast to those of his father. They show major changes in the rate of wage payment. He had this to say: 'In 1994 and 1995, I was working in the Sliito Fafrika [Perfume Factory, which later became the Essential Oils Research Centre] and was paid two birr a day. At about the same time private farmers used to offer better--three birr a day--albeit we had better job security.' (24)

Some major alterations in the overall wage system of the area deserve more detailed consideration. From the middle of the 1990s onwards, wage negotiations were conducted by dividing the work day into two halves, comprising morning and afternoon sessions. Midday, which according to local understanding can be any time between noon and 1 p.m., is taken as a divide between the two halves.

All the necessary deals between the labourer and the employer pertaining to wages are regulated accordingly. To start with, 15 Ethiopian birr was the wage a labourer expected to earn for working during the morning session and 10 birr for the afternoon. By 2012, this wage rate had risen to 30 bin for the morning and 20 birr for the afternoon sessions, which started at 2 p.m. and ended at 5 p.m. Therefore, in the region under discussion, the average earnings of a labourer for a full workday amounted to 50 birr. (25) In sum, the general impression one may get from the details above is that the expansion and growth of sugar cane--and khat-based cash cropping has had a profound impact on the system of wage labour in general and on wage negotiations in particular.


The time period covered in this article has spanned three political regimes: those in which the imperial, the Derg and the EPRDF-led governments held sway. In parallel with these governments and their policies, local agriculture has undergone transformations--some subtle, some radical and profound. The changes in the agricultural landscape were manifest in the way in which production was organized, in farmers' choice of crops, in the way labour for agricultural work was mobilized, and in the internal structure of labour regimes.

The pervasive expansion of commercial coffee farming in northern Sidama from the late 1950s made the region a forerunner in the systematic employment of wage labour. Using empirical evidence, this article has argued that the hiring of agricultural labour obtained a foothold in the sub-region first and subsequently spread to nearby localities. The expansion of commercial coffee plantations in the 1950s and 1960s was pivotal in this historical process. Almost all commercial farmers who were able to get access to cultivable land in northern Sidama in the imperial period concentrated on growing coffee. The principal form of labour in those coffee plantations was a migratory workforce that came from beyond Sidamaland--Kembata, Hadiya and Wolayita areas in what is now the SNNPR.

The wage rates and overall living conditions of the earliest migrant workers during imperial times reflected a harsh system of terms of labour. The Ethiopian revolution and the ensuing land reform allowed those migrant workers access to cultivable land in their new place of work, a previously unimaginable gain that influenced them to shift to permanent domicile in Sidama. Probably an enduring effect of the migratory wage labour system of the area was its impact on the demographic configuration of northern Sidama. As a result of this development, the sub-region has become the home of diverse ethnic groups of Sidama and non-Sidama backgrounds.

In its current post-revolutionary form, commercial agriculture--which is predominantly khat-based, and to a lesser degree involves the cultivation of sugar cane--has resumed the use of agricultural wage labour. There is a link between the expansion of commercial khat agriculture and the wider use of hired labour outside the older forms of the wage labour system in northern Sidama. The use of wage labour has become common and has spread into new parts of the region vigorously, following the massive expansion of cash cropping in the aftermath of the Derg period. In fact, the large majority of rural wage workers in contemporary northern Sidama are often part-time farmers themselves who also own land and other property elsewhere, the use of which they balance with their wage labour. Some of these rural wage workers are second- or third-generation descendants of the migrant workers of the 1950s and 1960s. However, there are also other, more recent, migrant workers flocking into northern Sidama in the search for wage employment. The 'Aleta', as they are known to their northern Sidama employers, are migrant workers from other Sidama areas, working for relatively better wages. Unlike the migrant workers of the former period, who became permanent settlers a long time ago, these new workers follow a pattern of seasonal mobility in line with the annual calendar of coffee production in their home areas.

The story told here, then, is an Ethiopia-specific illustration of Bill Freund's claim that 'the range of social forms in agriculture in twentieth century Africa is immensely varied. The careful observer finds at any one time and place transitional and apparently contradictory institutions that seem to represent capitalist subsumption over labour while containing both capitalist and non-capitalist elements of production' (Freund 1984: 28). Overlaid on these varied elements, political regimes alternately promoted and inhibited smallholder farming, the commodification of labour, and the transformation of migrants into settlers.

doi: 10.1017/S0001972016000681


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Archival material

Siihafe Te'zaz Wolda-Masqal Tariqu Memorial Archive Centre (WMTM), Folder No. 2089, File No. 2089/10: letter written to the Ministry of Pen, Reference No. 260, dated Genbot 10, 1937, E.C.

WMTM, Folder No. 2135, File No. 2200: report and roster by A to Mekonen Teshale on the execution of a qalcid in 1959 to distribute land to people to whom the Emperor made land grants in 1952.

Zeway Warada Archives (ZWA), Folder No. 12, File No. [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] 12: petition by Kembata and Hadiya inhabitants of Wondo Ganat addressed to the Office of the Regional Administration of South Shewa, dated 16 November 1982. E.C.

Girma Negash is currently an Assistant Professor in the Department of History, Addis Ababa University, Ethiopia. Email:

(1) Coquery-Vidrovitch disputes the assumption that agricultural industrialization is the best strategy through which the survival of African rural communities could be ensured. She notes that Ethiopia, along with Mali, Tanzania. Mozambique and Uganda, was hit by famine rather than achieving agricultural industrialization, despite the efforts made in the 1970s and 1980s (Coquery-Vidrovitch 1985). Similarly, writers such as Lars Bondestam have stood as firm critics of large-scale commercial agriculture making significant headway in Ethiopia's Awash Valley from the mid-1960s. Bondestam called this early effort of agricultural modernization the 'ravaging of capitalism' and a 'capitalist offensive'. He argues that, despite some improvements in local infrastructure, the whole exercise worsened the condition of the local people who were either exposed to new forms of exploitation or large-scale eviction (cited in Dessalegn 1986). In contrast, writers with a Marxist orientation have argued that capitalist development is superior to all pre-capitalist forms of production. No matter how harsh and aggressive it may look, the destruction of old forms such as pastoralism and the peasant mode of production is a necessary precondition to modernize agriculture and achieve a transition to a new form of social relations and new classes (ibid.).

(2) Even in advanced capitalist economies, the ideal type of capitalist production had not completely replaced peasant production as late as the mid-twentieth century (see Sender and Smith 1986).

(3) For a detailed assessment of the literature on the 'vices and virtues' of labour migration, see Freund (1984: 4-7).

(4) In some parts of Africa, migrant labourers did indeed opt for permanent settlement. For example, the cotton- and coffee-growing areas of Buganda, the cocoa-producing areas of Ghana and the palm oil areas of Nigeria have been recipients of a continuous flow of migrants who later settled to form a sizeable part of the local population (Stichter 1985: 3).

(5) Its location is at 07[degrees] 00' North and 38[degrees] 35' East (Ethiopian Mapping Authority 1988: 93).

(6) Previously, it was placed under Arussi Province until 1961. Then it was transferred to Shewa Province, then to Debub (South) Shewa Administrative Region, and finally to Sidama zone within the present SNNPR.

(7) The SNNPR is the largest regional state (situated between 04[degrees] 43'-08[degrees] 58' North and 34[degrees] 88'--39[degrees] 14' East) in the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia.

(8) WMTM, Folder No. 2089, File No. 2089/10: a letter written from Arussi Awraja Gezat to the Ministry of Pen, Reference No. 260. dated Genbot 10, 1937, E.C., p. I.

(9) WMTM, Folder No. 2135, File No. 2200: a report and roster by Ato Makonen Teshale on the execution of qalad in 1959 to distribute land to people to whom the Emperor offered grants in the name of 'chirota' and 'maderva' in 1952.

(10) Interviews with Safoy Ture. Wosha. 7 April 1999; Garjufa Wonjala, Wosha. 24 April 2000.

(11) Interviews with Tirkasso Habta-Maryam, Wosha. 1 December 1999; Baqala Baza, Wosha. 11 January 2012.

(12) Interviews with Tirkasso Habta-Maryam, Wosha, 1 December 1999: Baqala Baza, Wosha, 11 January 2012; Leffebo Beyore, Wosha, 11 January 2012.

(13) Interviews with Leffebo Beyore, Wosha, 11 January 2012; Admasu Mekonen, Wosha, 7 January 2012; Baqala Baza, Wosha, 11 January 2012.

(14) Interviews with Admasu Mekonen, Wosha, 7 January 2012; Baqala Baza, Wosha, 11 January 2012.

(15) Khat is a psychoactive shrub capable of creating temporary euphoria when chewed. It is grown chiefly in Ethiopia, Yemen and Kenya, and chewed in many parts of East Africa and the Middle East.

(16) Interviews with Yesahaq Baqala, Wosha, 11 January 2012; Admasu Mekonen, Wosha, 7 January 2012: Makuria Kebede, Wosha, 30 March 2012.

(17) interviews with Lamma Lattamo, Basha, 29 December 2011; Mekonen Hirpato, Kella Town, 15 December 2011; Yesahaq Baqala, Wosha. 11 January 2012.

(18) Interviews with Esayas Kebede and Lamma Lattamo. Basha. 29 December 2011: Nure Nukka, Basha. 13 January 2012.

(19) Aleta-Wondo, located in central Sidama, is one of the nine ivaradas into which the present Sidama zone is divided.

(20) interviews with Esayas Kebede and Lamma Lattamo. Basha, 29 December 2011; Nure Nukka. Basha. 13 January 2012.

(21) Interviews with Gezahegn Doyamo, Wosha, 30 March 2012: Mekonen Hirpato, Kella Town, 15 December 2011: Lamma Lattamo. Basha. 29 December 2011.

(22) Interview with Baqala Baza, Wosha, 11 January 2012.

(23) Interview with Leffebo Beyore. Wosha. 11 January 2012.

(24) Interview with Yesahaq Baqala, Wosha. 11 January 2012.

(25) Interviews with Esayas Kebede and Lamma Lattamo, Basha, 29 December 2011; Admasu Mekonen, Wosha. 7 January 2012; Mekonen Hirpato, Kella Town, 15 December 2011.
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Date:Feb 1, 2017
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