What the Work Is Like
There can be no doubt that the work in the quarries is physically demanding. The boys are under the sun for much of the day and rely on strength and endurance. They work in groups of three, with the biggest and strongest pickaxing the ground, the second biggest and strongest shovelling the gravel and the smallest sifting it through a filter. Yet they rest when they need to, share the workload between them, enjoy jokes and japes with their fellow young workers and are often helped by the patron who is in many ways dependent on them. This dependence is not only intrinsic to the employer-employee relationship; it is also conditioned by the fact that each patron relies on his reputation as a good employer to attract the young workers whose surplus he will ultimately extract. He thus has a real material interest in treating his current charges well enough that they won’t tarnish his image among future apprentices when they return to Benin, making it extremely rare for patrons to behave in the manner suggested by the dominant narrative. Consequently, whilst absolutely no one denies the inherent physical challenge of work in the quarries, rarely is it an experience that overtaxes anyone and never is it described as any worse than the farm work that they would all otherwise be doing legally at home.
My interviews with Peter and Paul underlined this clearly. I spoke to both when they were back in Za-Kpota after having completed their time in the quarries. Peter explained that he first migrated in his late teens, did two years and earned the 140,000 FCFA that were promised to him. By his own admission, the work was ‘very difficult,’ involving constant digging and lorry-loading, often in the heat. ‘But,’ he said, ‘it was never too much and got easier over time.’ He also added that he enjoyed working with his friends and that the patron fed him and put a roof over his head. These were important factors in encouraging him to migrate again for a second two-year term, the proceeds of which paid for him to build a house when he finally returned to Za-Kpota. Paul, who was Peter’s close friend and a fellow villager, had a similar story to share during our interview:
Neil: What was the work like in Abeokuta, Paul?
Paul: It was very hard, very physically demanding. The worst was being
under the sun all day. And then, when you’re sick, the boss moans because it means he’s losing money, so if you don’t get well again you’ll just get sent home, because keeping you is expensive.
Neil: Do you see this as exploitation?
Paul: Yes and no, it depends. It can be, especially if you’re asked to do
too much work, and seeing as wages are relatively low. But then again, we all agree to them beforehand, and we are looked after well. Plus, we sometimes refuse to work too hard if it’s too much, so we’re not forced.
Neil: How were the days? Did you work with your friends?
Paul: Yes, loads of them! I could be working here where I am sat and
then I’d have my pal working over there by that tree, and another by that bush. There are loads of kids from this and neighbouring villages and they’re always joking whilst working, just as we all eat together at meal times. Daily life there really is ok.
Neil: It sounds quite positive. But how does it compare to life here?
Paul: Well life here is better, but there was also good. It was a really good
atmosphere and I enjoyed it. Plus, you know that if you do five or six years there and you get on well with your boss, he’ll show you the ropes and then you can become a boss yourself!
Such a picture is completely absent in the dominant depictions of the anti-trafficking world. And this fact causes great consternation both in Abeokuta and in the Zou communities whose young labour migrants work in Abeokuta. Frequently, the people I spoke to complained of ‘stupid outsiders’ coming and telling people not to migrate into ‘slavery,’ while twice in Abeokuta, I received a round of applause from quarry working teenagers for being ‘the first person ever to come here and ask us how we see our work.’ For them, as for their communities, it is true that sometimes their work may constitute afoutame—‘exploitation.’ But never is it what NGOs or the government call ‘k^anoumon' or ‘slavery.’ My interview with a group of women whose sons had migrated from Zogbodomey to the quarries was indicative in this regard. The following is an extract of the fieldnotes I made during our exchange:
Extract 3.2: Fieldnotes From the Village W and I were on our way back to the bike when we stumbled across a group of women separating corn from its husks. The village was quiet, as most people were still in the fields. We got chatting about what we were doing here and it emerged that many of their sons and nephews had been away to Abeokuta or were still currently there. I asked them what they felt about the work that they do. ‘Is it afoutame?,’ I said, drawing many smiles with my use of the Fon word. The older woman spoke first. ‘When the contract is not respected, it is afoutame.’ ‘But,’ she added a moment later and with a grin, ‘sometimes the kids pester the patron for their wages in advance. So he’ll give them some and then deduct it from their wages. That isn’t afoutame.’
This fit squarely with what I’d heard in all of the villages so far. The major go-to for the definition of exploitation is non-respect of the agreement, which makes a lot of sense. But I wanted to know about the working conditions themselves, and how they fitted into these women’s understanding of afoutame or kanoumon. So I asked, ‘What about the type of work they do - is that afoutame, or is it normal?’ Another woman responded with the assessment that sometimes the work they do is too hard for them. ‘But,’ she added, ‘when they’re grown there’s no problem.’ To clarify, I asked at what age a boy is grown enough to do hard work. To this they responded collectively, all saying at about 14 or 15. I then pointed to a boy who was walking past and who must have been about that age (he later said he was 14) and I asked whether a lad of his size could do hard work. At this we all had a good laugh. They teased: ‘By his age and size, you’re more than old and strong enough to do any job whatsoever!!’ They thought that using the language of kanoumon to describe what happens in Abeokuta was ridiculous, and the elder woman blamed money-seeking NGOs for spreading such ‘silly lies.’