What’s “local” labor in Burkina Faso’s mining sector?

In Burkina Faso's mines, the differences between local and foreign workers are significant, especially what they get paid.

Image credit Diana Ayeh.

In recent years, the question of integrating “local linkages” into a globalized mining economy has become a particular topic of concern among policy makers and scholars working on mining topics and policies in African countries. This is not surprising since mining projects and economies have the reputation of emerging as “enclaves”, and in so doing, as being disconnected from national and local development projects. James Ferguson’s work has maybe most prominently stipulated how these “socially thin” mineral enclaves have become the dominant spatial format of 21st century mining capitalism on the African continent.

Burkina Faso’s industrial mining sector only evolved during the last decade with an industrial gold production increasing tenfold, from five tons in 2008 to more than 50 tons in 2018. Today, several features of Ferguson’s mineral enclave characterize the booming national mining economy. This not only concerns the spatially enclosed character of sites of mineral production, enacted through security clearance systems and strict mobility control via fences, walls or drones. It also applies to the import of food, material, infrastructures and staff necessary for the technically highly specific processes of mineral extraction, and the everyday mine life. Yet, the picture is more complex. Burkina Faso’s industrial mining sector evolved in parallel with what has been described by anthropologists Catherine Dolan and Dinah Rajak as an “ethical turn in corporate capitalism.” Furthermore, the reform process of the national mining legislation in Burkina Faso—in line with those in the sub-region—implied important measures to increase the mining economy’s imprint nationally and locally.

While local content promotion aims to break with an enclave legacy in mining capitalism, the agendas behind this new trend are diverse. The question of what “local” and what “content” means, is ultimately subject to multi-scalar negotiation processes. Inhabitants of mining areas naturally consider themselves as most impacted by large-scale mining activities and therefore as most entitled to access to compensation and alternative income strategies. Yet, the availability of jobs in mining is limited since no operating mine site in Burkina Faso employs more than 2,000 people directly. In an age of “local content,” seeking the limited number of jobs at mine sites often goes hand in hand with proving and affirming “localness.” Burkina Faso’s government, on the other hand, introduced some local content requirements within its reformed mining legislation of 2015. This is not only in line with the mining sector policies of important donors such as the World Bank, but also serves as a vehicle for the government to (re-)gain national control over the mining sector. According to its representatives, preferential access to direct and indirect jobs attached to the mining economy should be granted to Burkinabè nationals. From a company perspective—apart from cost-reducing side-effects— “local content represents the most strategic contribution a company can make to securing its social license to operate” (as articulated by Gbegi and Adebisi). Corporate local content requirements often translate into the establishment of job and training facilities for “project affected people” (PAP), targeting those directly affected by the loss of housing or livelihoods due to large-scale mining projects.

Beyond such debates about its meaning, and questions of its local and national appropriation, the actual success such globally trending concepts have in promoting inclusive labor markets remains at least controversial. The local content promotion programs of two studied mine sites in southwestern Burkina Faso are de facto not completely able to break with mining projects as enclaves of labor, production and consumption. Local suppliers in particular are often not able to meet the standards and norms of the global mining industry for their products produced locally. The South-African based supplying company All Terrain Services (ATS), for instance, delivers “all package” quality service systems from camp construction and management to catering services for employees “in the most remote regions of Africa.” “Operating at the highest international levels of quality, taste and hygiene,” ATS owns and operates the necessary infrastructure to transport dry goods, cleaning materials and frozen food. In Burkina Faso, this results in a quasi-monopoly the company has on these supply chains and tasks in and around industrial gold mining projects.

Direct employment at mine sites, on the other hand, often implies a restricted access for residents of the locality where operations take place. A constant concern and argument of the industry spanning the national headquarters to sites of extraction is that residents of mining-impacted communities would lack the needed capacities and skills to participate in the global working assignments and supply chains of the sector. As a response, mining companies establish different scalar categories of workforce, (“expatriate,” “national,” “local,” and “local-local”) that are—intentionally or not—usually connected to different job categories (“skilled,” “semi-skilled,” and “unskilled”). The different job categories ranging from “skilled expatriate” to “unskilled local” differ significantly in nature, quality, hiring practices and most importantly, wages. While “skilled expatriate” workers are for instance hired through Globe 24-7, a “professional Human resource consulting in the mining industry,” “unskilled labor” is usually recruited though local intermediaries in charge of assuring the “localness” of a candidate.

Together with the outsourcing practices of multinational mining companies, these different job categories tend to reproduce occupational hierarchies in a globalized sector with very specific working assignments. While “local content” has certainly led to more mobility between mineral concessions and the outer world, it remains open whether the mining labor market of the future succeeds in promoting the internal mobility of workers and avoids further labor market segmentation.

About the Author

Diana Ayeh is a postdoctoral researcher at the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research in Leipzig. From 2016 to 2019 she was part of the “Collaborative Research Centre (SFB) 1199 Processes of Spatialization under the Global Condition” project at Leipzig University.

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