Collective action, “liberation,” and Tanzania’s working poor

How can a fragmented and precarious working class unite against exploitative labor relations and, in the process, transform them?

Image credit Jerry Michalski via Flickr CC.

“The Manzese Declaration,” issued by a group of women market vendors from the Manzese neighborhood of Dar es Salaam, includes the statement: “There is no upper-class person who will liberate us. We the poor, we will liberate ourselves, and our primary weapon is our unity and solidarity.”

This declaration, a programmatic call to arms, appears as an epilogue in Working People Against the Free Market (Wavujajasho Dhidi ya Soko Huria), a remarkable collection of essays edited by activist and academic, Sabatho Nyamsenda. The declaration—included in English translation at the end of this review—offers a rallying conclusion to a book all about workforce solidarity.

The central preoccupation in Nyamsenda’s collection is less whether such solidarity is possible and more how it can be achieved. How can a fragmented and precarious working class of market vendors, street hawkers, bus conductors, motorcycle taxi drivers, coffee farmers, and miners unite against exploitative labor relations and, in the process, transform them?

One reason for the book’s activist emphasis is the profile of its contributors, many of whom are themselves precariously employed workers and organizers. Although frank about the systemic challenges they face, their interest lies in finding collective strategies to fight back. It is their first-person testimonies that make Working People a stand-out text on precarious and informal sector labor, be it in Tanzania or Africa more broadly.

Working People does not romanticize collective action nor its transformative potential. It does, however, argue that any effort to tackle poverty, exploitation, and authoritarian power relations must begin with organized labor. And as modeled by the design of the book itself, any intellectual contribution should be anchored in actual struggle, responding to its needs, recognizing its failings, and expanding the web of solidarity to build for future success.

Knowledge production, by and for working people

In the first four chapters in Working People, we hear from Faria Shomary, a Manzese market vendor, who describes widespread exploitation by money lenders and workers’ subsequent efforts to form a cooperative bank. Abdallah Lubala, the secretary of a bus drivers’ union, then details how bus drivers are underpaid and how a worker-owned bus company could help. Mateo Izdory Mpulumba, a motorcycle taxi driver, discusses the vulnerability of his fellow drivers and their collective strategies to protect themselves. Nicodemes Kajungu, Secretary General of a major mineworkers’ union, outlines how miners are organizing against low pay and insecure employment. [Africa is a Country has already published translations of Shomary and Lubala’s essays and we will publish the other two shortly –Editor]. The remaining chapters, while written by academics, are still rooted in ethnographic studies and deal directly with the subject of workers’ collective organizing.

Sabatho Nyamsenda, as editor of the collection, was able to include the direct testimonies of workers, in part, thanks to his own activist engagement; he knows Shomary and others because—alongside his work as a lecturer at the University of Dar es Salaam—he organizes with them. He also developed his own methodology for gathering their views, interviewing each author at length, transcribing their statements and then editing the final version with them and publishing it in a local Swahili-language newspaper.

Nyamsenda explains his reasons for adopting this approach in the introduction to Working People. “We have made a big mistake,” he writes, “thinking that the only way to learn is from the writings of scholars and the pages of books.” Workers’ experience of struggle is a “fount of knowledge about how the exploitative economic system works and how to fight back.” Although valuable as well, academic analysis is secondary.

Nyamsenda’s assessment of whose knowledge to prioritize aligns with his emphasis on maximizing accessibility in publishing and dissemination, that is, in so far as any written text can be rendered accessible. The essays in Working People first appeared as part of a weekly column, entitled Sauti ya Mshikamano (Voice of Solidarity), in the Tanzanian newspaper Raia Mwema and on a blog, Sauti ya Ujamaa (Socialist Voice). They have now been collected and published in a free e-book.

Working People certainly is “unique,” as Nyamsenda suggests in his introduction. It is a unique example of an effort to prioritize direct testimonies from workers and to let their organizing struggles frame research questions.

Exploitation and work

There is a tendency among some scholars, both on the left and right of the political spectrum, to celebrate the “autonomy” and “entrepreneurial” self-employment of people in informal or precarious jobs. Not so in Working People. Throughout its various chapters, the book presents a clear-eyed analysis of class and exploitative labor relations.

Nyamsenda stresses in his introduction that, to grasp the significance of class, we must expand our focus beyond the classical figure of the industrial worker and the wage relation. Rather, the task at hand involves identifying the varied power dynamics at play in different sectors of the economy, pitting owner-employers against those who only have their labor to sell.

Already in the Swahili of many contributors, the language itself evokes a notion of class and exploitation where many might fail to see it. The word wavujajasho, in the title of the book and conventionally translated as “working people,” literally means “those who sweat.” Its antonym is wavunajasho, “those who harvest sweat.” Another word, wanyonge, means “poor people” but, derived from the verb kunyonga or “to hang,” has a sharper, more sinister connotation.

The essays by workers and organizers further detail the nature of these exploitative relations. Lubala recounts how bus drivers employed by commercial bus companies lack formal contracts or a defined salary but instead receive a modest “allowance” for each ride. The discrepancy between what a driver earns versus what a bus owner collects is stark. Lubala calculates that for a journey from Dar es Salaam to Mwanza, over 1000 km, a driver earns approximately $17 while a bus owner gets a profit of $520, approximately 30 times more. Meanwhile, much of the risk and cost of the journey, notably for any speeding tickets, are shouldered by the driver.

While bus drivers are at least recognized as “hired” employees, thereby clarifying the labor relationship between worker and bus owner, motorcycle taxi or boda boda drivers are more often perceived as “self-employed.” Mpulumba’s essay puts paid to that notion. The “bosses” in this case are the motorcycle owners who “rent” their vehicles to drivers. Thus, without the capital to purchase their own bikes, drivers must comply with the terms set by owners. Some arrangements allow a driver to purchase his bike from the boss over the course of a year, but in this instance, the driver pays twice the value of a new bike while also covering all necessary (and frequent) repairs.

A third example of an exploitative, if often overlooked, labor relation exists between small market vendors and their predatory money lenders. Shomary highlights how vendors, although again ostensibly self-employed, are nevertheless depend for capital on these creditors. Over just a few months, a vendor may pay over 50 percent in interest on a small loan. Failure to pay back the loan means “you end up losing everything you had, from your small business to everything in your home.”

Aside the quantifiable, material cost of exploitation, all the above groups face additional social stigma and isolation. Mpulumba observes, “The stereotype of bodaboda drivers is that they are druggies, brawlers, and reckless.” When drivers get in an accident, doctors refuse them care, claiming there are no beds. Shomary, meanwhile, stresses how much-celebrated microfinance schemes work by turning women vendors against each other; for anyone who cannot pay, “your fellow group members are used to pressure you, to humiliate you.”

This emphasis on the erosion of workers’ personal ties, their social standing, shines a new light on the nature and extent of exploitation workers face. It is an “accumulation of misery,” as Nyamsenda argues, citing Marx.

In sum, there is a systematic process of wealth extraction from the poor, those forced to labor because they do not own their own capital. In line with a small but growing literature on informal and precarious employment, Working People exposes that extractive process, and the class relations that structure it.

Class struggle and collective action

From an analysis of labor exploitation, we can begin to explore how to fight back. How can the bus driver improve his pay? How can the market vendor free herself from loan sharks? Working People tackles these questions head on, delving into the real-life collective action experiments of its contributors.

Until the onset of economic crisis and liberalization in the 1980s, labor studies in Tanzania and beyond emphasized the role of an industrial proletariat. But that focus no longer makes sense. As Nyamsenda points out in his introduction, a process of de-industrialization means that Tanzania’s industrial working class, while not irrelevant, is small and poorly unionized. “When we think about the revolutionary actors of our time,” he writes, “it is important to think of working people in their totality, including street hawkers, food vendors, and small farmers.”

The collective strategies documented in Working People range from trade union organizing, solidarity funds and strike action through to cooperative ownership. Bus drivers have gone on strike and are now, through their union, coordinating to form a worker-owned bus cooperative. Boda boda drivers organize to bail each other out and pay hospital bills when one of their number has an accident. Market vendors are looking to build up their own financial alternative, federating small savings groups into a cooperatively owned “Poor People’s Bank.” A cross-class coalition of peasants and petty bourgeois are fighting against a salt factory and its big capital owners who are encroaching on their land and destroying their businesses.

Many of these efforts aim to organize labor power to challenge employers or else to replace private ownership with cooperative alternatives. But the state is also a key target for workers’ collective action.

Much of the earlier and still mainstream literature on the informal economy suggests that the more the state retreats, leaving “civil society” and “entrepreneurs” to flourish, the better. Yet the state is never absent. The question is, whose interests does it serve?

Working People documents the many ways the Tanzanian State—through selective enforcement of labor regulations and land laws, anti-union legislation, regressive revenue policy, or extra-legal harassment by authorities—supports wealthy elites to the detriment of workers.

The message from contributors is that this situation can and must be reversed. That reversal will only happen, though, if workers organize and make explicit demands of their government. These demands include bus drivers’ calls for a one-off grant to help purchase buses for their cooperative, mine workers’ mobilization against exorbitant taxation of their meager salaries and boda boda drivers’ protest against police harassment.

These interventions may seem marginal, and indeed in isolation, they are. But they stem from the core insight that state institutions and government policies are an object of struggle for competing groups. By building up their power through collective organizing, workers can begin to fight for a state that addresses their concerns—at least some of the time.

From collective action to transformative change

As noted at the start, Working People does not romanticize collective action nor its transformative potential. Workers face many setbacks with, very often, only modest wins.

What Working People does allow, though, is to re-imagine—and hopefully later pursue—a path towards more fundamental change. The street hawker may not seem like much of a “revolutionary actor,” to use Nyamsenda’s language; she does not currently pose a genuine threat to the prevailing political and economic order. But through collective organization, she can—alongside many other working people—begin to alter that order. Hence, she is a revolutionary of sorts, in that change comes from her.

This emphasis may suggest an overly modest ambition, particularly given a recently renewed interest in Africa’s industrialization. According to many African government elites, international financiers and policy advisors, growth in manufacturing is the only genuine path to structural transformation and poverty reduction. “The livelihood of workers can improve when their productivity improves,” an adviser to Ethiopia’s Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed, recently stated, invoking the UK industrial revolution as a model. Tanzania’s President John Magufuli has himself pledged to make a “Tanzania of factories.”

The problem with this view is two-fold. One, the likelihood of a rapid industrialization process in any African economy seems remote as even the continental poster child, Ethiopia, faces numerous challenges.

Two, this industrial transition can seemingly occur only through extreme labor exploitation, which in the short- to medium-term, is no solution for poor workers. Sticking with the Ethiopian case, workers in the flagship textile factories are “the lowest paid in the world.” Wages barely cover food, transport and rent, leaving workers “sleeping in shifts on shared mattresses.” In the absence of labor organizing, individual workers vote with their feet, leaving factory jobs in droves.

So, while the “revolutionary” potential of the street hawker may not seem so great, neither is it appealing to simply wait for transformative change to be delivered top-down by international investors and authoritarian government elites. The message Working People sends is that we can—and must—confront poverty and exploitation where we find it now.

Tanzanian workers are already highly productive, generating considerable surplus value, but unequal labor relations mean that most of that value goes to the boda boda or bus owner, the money lender, the mining company or the factory owner. Collective action in its many forms is the way to counter that trend, and for those interested in showing solidarity to Tanzania’s workers, learning from them—including by reading Working People—is the way forward.

The Manzese Declaration

The below Manzese Declaration, which appears at the end of Working People Against the Free Market, was issued a year ago by women market vendors living in the working-class neighborhood of Manzese, in Dar es Salaam. The Declaration—and the commitments listed therein—was a response to the routine exploitation and deprivation market vendors experience at the hands of local money lenders. In honor of the one-year anniversary of the Declaration, and to mark International Women’s Day, Africa is a Country is now publishing an English translation of the original Swahili version.

This is also an opportunity to note the progress already made towards achieving the Declaration’s core aims. The women involved have formed a cooperative uniting the ten founding savings and loans groups, which are under the control of the women themselves. Each of the ten groups has about 36 members, making for a total membership of 360. The cooperative members have rented a building in Manzese, which they use for both their economic and political activities. They have also started three income generating projects, including a small liquid soap manufacturer (the soap is branded Uhuru, or “freedom”), a catering service and a bar. In terms of organization, the cooperative has three committees: the leadership committee, the projects committee and the mobilization committee. Currently, the focus is on incorporating more individual savings and loans groups. Every ten groups will form their own cooperative along the same model as the one already created, and then all the coops will federate.

Against an exploitative financial system, for an alternative managed and owned by the poor

We women, poor market vendors of Dar es Salaam, we have gathered here today, 9 March 2019, in the neighborhood of Manzese to celebrate International Women’s Day. Those attending this meeting are not women alone but also men, many of them young. They have joined us to share their experiences of the troubles we all face within an exploitative free market system, and of how to fight back. After a lengthy discussion, we have agreed the following declaration:

(1) We need our own alternative organizations for working people.

We working women, we have been used by upper class people, serving as decoration in their meetings, be they from political parties, non-governmental organization, or business. We are made to wear fulana and vitenge [shirts and clothe skirts that, when distributed at official functions, are often emblazoned with a party logo, politicians face or similar branding], given soda and food, but the truth remains that those meetings are not ours. We are used as mere puppets for the benefit for these rich people searching for money and power. Our discussions as working women have taught us that we the poor, we need our own alternative organizations that we control ourselves, in which we can meet, share our experiences, and put in place strategies to fight back against the systems that abuse and oppress us. There is no upper-class person who will liberate us; we the poor, we will liberate ourselves, and our primary weapon is our unity and solidarity.

(2) We are exploited, abused and humiliated by lenders.

Us poor city women running small businesses, we have been pressured into taking loans from microfinance institutions and banks, which claim their aim is to liberate the poor. But the truth is that these institutions swallow us completely, extracting from us what little we have. Their interest rates are very high, often starting at 50 percent and going as high as 200 percent within a short period of time. In addition to the interest, there are fees for requesting a loan and unrealistic conditions, which cannot be met. These lenders want the poor person who takes a loan to begin returning the money within a short period, if possible, within two days. A woman who takes a loan, how will she manage her business to then start returning that loan within two days?

Because of the high interest rates and the unreasonable conditions, the small profit we make through our business ends up going to these lenders. Often, we are forced to take a loan from one institution to pay back a loan from another. We have landed in a bottomless pit, trapped by our debt.

These lenders have been coordinating with government authorities to harass us, abuse us and steal what little we have, including our personal belongings. Many of us have ended up in family disputes, even brought to the point of a family break-up, after being bankrupted by lenders. We end up estranged, enmity spreading amongst us, because of the way these institutions force us to borrow in groups so that we humiliate and bankrupt each other. Many of us become ill, especially with heart troubles, lose our health and even reach the point of taking our own lives because of the humiliation and abuse brought to us by these lenders. We cannot accept that this situation continues.

(3) Enough! Let us unite to free ourselves of this exploitative lending system.

Today we declare that it is imperative we free ourselves from this exploitative lending system. We already have experience managing savings and loan groups, which we started ourselves and manage with transparency and democracy, and through which the profit we earn comes back to us. It is now time to unite these groups and form our own bank. Let us also come together to start new small-scale manufacturing enterprises using a cooperative model and for our own collective benefit.

We have decided that, after concluding today’s meeting, we will take the following steps:

(a) The leaders of savings groups attached to lending institutions should meet to plan how best to free themselves from those institutions and transform into savings and loans groups under the control of the poor themselves;

(b) Leaders of savings and loans groups already managed by their members should meet to plan how to work together to start savings and loans cooperatives as well as productive enterprise using a cooperative model.

(c) All of us who attended the conference of working women, we should return to our communities to educate people and turn them against loan companies. Let us not accept seeing our fellow women and destitute continue to be swindled to profit private lenders. Let us use every means possible to ensure that these companies disappear completely.

(d) In addition, let us encourage the poor throughout the country to unite in savings and loans groups and then to start up cooperatives linking these groups, thereby creating alternative lending institutions that are under their control, that are managed so as to ensure transparency, democracy and equality, and that return any profit to the people themselves.

(e) We intreat our young scholars, journalists, lawyers, teachers, accountants, and others to use their knowledge and join hands with us so we realize everything to which we have committed.

This is a war, a war against the exploitation, oppression and abuse committed by lenders. Us, the working women, we shall lead this struggle until such time as victory is won.

For the eradication of exploitative loan companies.
If you strike a woman, you strike a rock.
There is no gender equality without class equality.

Further Reading