Socometal: Rewarding African Workers
By: Evalde Mutabazi and C. Brooklyn Derr
It was a most unusual meeting at a local café in Dakar. Diop, a young Senegalese engineer who was educated at one of Frances’s elite engineering grandes ‘ecoles in Lyon, was meeting with N’Diaye, a model factory worker to whom other workers from his tribe often turned when there were personal or professional difficulties. N’Diaye was a chief’s son, but he didn’t belong to the union and he was not an official representative of any group within the factory.
Socometal is a metal container and can company. While multinational, this particular plant is a joint venture wherein 52 percent is owned by the French parent company and 48 percent is Senegalese. Over the last twenty years Socometal has grown in size from 150 to 800 employees and it has returns of about 400 million FCFA (African francs) or $144 million. The firm is often held up as a model in terms of its Africanization of management policies, whereby most managers are now West African with only 8-10 top managers coming from France.
During the meeting N’Diaye asked Diop if he would accept an agreement to pay each worker for two extra hours in exchange for a 30 percent increase in daily production levels. If so, N’Diaye would the guarantor for this target production level that would enable the company to meet the order in the shortest time period. “If you accept my offer,” he said with a smile, “we could even produce more. We are at 12,000 (units) a day, but we’ve never been confronted with this situation. I would never have made this proposal to Mr. Bernard but, if you agree today, I will see that the 20,000 (unit) level is reached as of tomorrow evening. I’ll ask each worker to find ways of going faster, to communicate this to the others and to help each other if they have problems…”
Mr. Olivier Bernard, a graduate of Ecole Centrale in Paris (one of Frances’s more prestigious engineering schools), was the French production manager, and Diop was the assistant production manager. Mr. Bernard was about 40 and had not succeeded at climbing the hierarchal ladder in the parent company. Some report that this was due to his tendency to be arrogant, uncommunicative and negative. His family lived in a very nice neighborhood in Marseille, and it was his practice to come to Dakar, precisely organize the work using various flowcharts, tell Diop exactly what was expected by a certain date and then return to France for periods of two to six weeks. This time he maintained that he had contracted a virus and needed to return for medical treatment.
Shortly before Mr. Bernard fell ill, Socometal agreed to a contract requiring them to reach in short time a volume of production never before achieved. Mr. Bernard, after having done a quick calculation, declared, “We’ll never get that from our workers— c’est impossible!” After organizing as best he could, he left for Marseille.
Diop pondered what N’Diaye had proposed, and then he sought the opinions of influential people in different departments. Some of the French and Italian expatriates told him they were sure that the workers would not do overtime, but felt confident enough to take the risk. The next morning N’Diaye and Diop met in front of the factory and Diop gave his agreement on the condition that the 30 percent rise in daily production levels be reached that evening. He and the management would take a final decision on a wage increase only after assessing the results and on evaluating the ability of the workers to maintain this level of production in the long run.
The reasons given by the French and Italian expatriates for why the Senegalese would not perform overtime or speed up their productivity are interesting. One older French logistics manager said, “Africans aren’t lazy but they work to live, and once they have enough they refuse to do more. It won’t make any sense to them to work harder or longer for more pay.” And the Italian human resource manager exclaimed, “We already tried two years ago to get them to do more faster. We threatened to fire anyone caught going too slow or missing more than one day’s work per month, and we told them they would all get bonuses if they reached the production target. We had the sense that they were laughing behind our backs and doing just enough to keep their jobs while maintaining the same production levels.”
Four days after their first negotiation, the contract between Diop and N’Diaye went into action. Throughout the day N’Diaye gave his job on the line to two of his colleagues in order to have enough time and energy to mobilize all the workers. The workers found the agreement an excellent initiative. “This will be a chance to earn a bit more money, but especially to show them (the French management) that we’re more capable than they think,” declared one of the Senegalese foremen. From its first day of application the formula worked wonders. Working only one extra hour per day, every work unit produced 8 percent more than was forecast by Diop and N’Diaye. Over the next two months, the daily production level oscillated between 18,000 and 22,000 units per day — between 38 and 43 percent more than the previous daily production. It was at this production level, never experienced during the history of the company, that Mr. Bernard found things when he returned from his illness.
“I,” said Diop, “was very happy to see the workers so proud of their results, so satisfied with their pay raise and finally really involved in their work…. In view of some expatriates’ attitudes it was a veritable miracle…. But, instead of rejoicing, Mr. Bernard reproached me for giving two hours’ pay to the workers, who were only really doing one hour more than usual. ‘By making this absurd decision,’ he said, ‘you have put the management in danger of losing its authority over the workers. You have acted against house rules… You have created a precedent too costly for our business. Now, we must stop this ridiculous operation as quickly as possible. We must apply work regulations…’ And he slammed the door in my face before I had the time to say anything. After all, he has more power than me in this company, which is financed 52 percent by French people. Nevertheless, I thought I would go to see the managing director and explain myself and present my arguments. I owed this action to N’Diaye and his workers, who had trusted me, and I didn’t care if it made Bernard any angrier.”
In the meantime, the decided to maintain the new production level in order to honor their word to N’Diaye and Diop. A foreman and friend of N’Diaye stated, “At least he knows how to listen and speak to us like men.”
The foreman indicated, however, that they might return to the former production level if Bernard dealt with them as he did before.
CASE DISCUSSION QUESTIONS
- What are the underlying cultural assumptions for Mr. Bernard and how are these different from the basic assumptions of N’Diaye and Diop?
- What would you do if you were Bernard’s boss, the managing director?
- In what ways is a reward system a cultural phenomenon? How might you design an effective reward system for Senegal?