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Labour market in colonial Africa: constraints and competition; the case of Upper Volta migrant workers from 1920 to 1945

Issiaka Mandé, Maître de conférences, Université Paris 7 Denis Diderot

During the colonial era, Upper Volta was considered to be a "manpower reservoir". Illusions relating to "high densities" of the population, relative poverty and lack of political willingness to develop this geographical space resulted in the exploitation of its human resources for the benefit of French West African public construction sites and farms. Soon after World War I, the French administration called on citizens of Upper Volta to build the railway system of both Côte-d’Ivoire and Thiès-Niger. Besides, the lack of manpower in colonial farms encouraged the administration to use the colony workers. In spite of the reforms that were introduced, the demographic balance in Upper Volta seemed at risk as evidenced by increased morbidity and mortality rates among workers in the colony.
Moreover, the French colonial administration contented itself with organizing population movements within its space only for economic purpose. Also, while resorting to its colonial empire in order to face the 1930’s economic crisis, the French administration made a new allocation of roles in its West African colonies. The southern part of Côte-d’Ivoire with a strong potential of raw materials became a meeting place for migratory flows from Sahel regions. Better still; a big portion of Upper Volta colony dismembered in 1932 was attached to the territory of Côte-d’Ivoire. An active policy of population movement was thus established through an intensification of forced migrations and the creation of colonization villages.
An ill-considered appreciation of this situation would often make many authors consider recruitment conditions of Upper Volta migrant workers as originating from a normative model all over the colonial era. This idea was spread by numerous official documents published late in the 20’s following the I.L.B. recriminations and on the occasion the 1931 Universal colonial exhibition, which has nothing to do with the reality. For public construction sites, inspection reports and administrative correspondences have been able to trace back the process relating to recruitment, forwarding and employment of migrant workers from Upper Volta. One could especially note that significant improvements relating to more humane living conditions for the worker were made over the second half of the decade 1920-1930. But such improvements will soon deteriorate with World War II in spite of the competition in the farms of the Gold Coast colony.



Africa Conference 2006: Movements, Migrations and Displacements in Africa
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