Ghanaian workers deserve better

Tue, 26 Jan 2016 Source: Bokor, Michael J. K.

By Dr. Michael J.K. Bokor

Saturday, January 23, 2016

My good friends, I have been brooding over many issues, especially the problems that caused the recent street demonstration by organized labour and their withdrawal of services just because they couldn't strike any deal with the government regarding their conditions of service and many others that negatively influence human existence in Ghana.

I have come to the conclusion that much of what precipitates such an impasse has to do with the failure of the government to level with workers and Ghanaians, generally, in terms of reality. I am informed by the fact that organized labour called off the strike action because their leaders had the opportunity to see facts/figures/evidence from government to justify the recent increases in tariffs for utility services and petroleum.

If the government had all those facts/figures/evidence to explain its actions, why won't it make them available to the public to prevent all the fracas that has worsened its credibility problem and set its opponents on a destabilization spree? If those facts/figures/evidence are authentic, why not put them in the public domain for consumption so the government can have its peace of mind and not be pushed to the wall as has been done all this while to create a bad name for it?

Based on my assessment of issues, I have written an opinion piece---which is really long---about labour demands but that is relevant---to throw more light on the issue, as far as partisan politicking is concerned. Please, bear with me as you read the piece and comment on it.

Folks, we have been alarmed by the spate of industrial actions by workers. We are free to interpret those actions as we wish, considering the motivation for them, the forces behind them, and the outcome. What happened on Wednesday January 20, 2016, provides a good reason for analysis of the situation in this election year. Clearly, there is a worrisome disconnect to be wary of.

Ghanaian workers lay down their tools whenever prompted by circumstances, not necessarily because they are unpatriotic or because they want to sabotage the system. They do so because they have to protect their interests, even while circumscribing those interests within the ambit of the national one.

It is commonplace for employees worldwide to lay down their tools whenever they become disgruntled at existing conditions of service. And they use that opportunity for negotiation to improve their lot. Management may not like the use of industrial action for that purpose but it can’t abolish it either. Workers all over the world have the right to withdraw their services in demand for better service conditions. After all, why would they have “unions” to fight for them and May Day institutionalized to uplift their cause?

In Ghana, recourse to industrial action is perennial; it is tantamount to a kind of “liberation struggle” by workers and used as and when the need arises. It is preponderant, especially if partisan political interests slip through. At the same time, a misconceived and ill-implemented industrial action can be damaging.

Within this context, anytime there is a threat of industrial action, eyebrows get raised. In our time, industrial actions have always been tied to the harsh realities of living conditions, especially when the cost of basic necessities of life rise astronomically without any corresponding rise in wages and salaries. We have heard cries here and there in the past few years to indicate that the going is tough for Ghanaian workers despite measures such as the so-called Single Spine Salary Structure that theoretically aimed at improving the situation but that have ended up compounding problems.

It’s all about the weak national economy which cannot sustain any reasonably high salary regime. As to why, I don’t know; but it is clear that a lot is happening to worsen the economy that is not being addressed at the workplace or government. When productivity falls, what do you think will be reaped to give workers the respectable wages and salaries to end all their agitations for improved service conditions?

In this sense, then, the perennial head-butting by the government and its employees will not end. Neither will it be solved with mere posturing or muscle-flexing sessions. We know what is at stake.

The truth, however, is that public sector workers are grossly unhappy at their wages and salaries. So is it with those in the private sector. But because unionization in the public sector is more allowable than it is in the private sector, the possibility of public sector workers withdrawing their services in pursuit of their objectives is higher and more rampant than it is for those in the private sector.

As such, industrial actions by “organized labour” (another name for public sector workers, especially those subsisting on the Consolidated Fund) are recognized as part of the “human rights” phenomenon. There is more to it, though.

Over the past few months, a lot has happened to suggest that the workers’ agitations have a lot to make us shudder. In response to dire economic exigencies, the Mahama-led administration has introduced measures that met immediate stiff opposition from workers and the generality of the Ghanaian populace. The prices of utility services, petroleum products, etc. have been increased—and all hell has broken loose.

Members of the Trades Union Congress (TUC) went on a nationwide demonstration last Wednesday against the 59.2 per cent and 67.2% increase in tariffs for electricity and power, respectively, and are also demanding the scrapping of the recently passed energy sector levy, which has resulted in a 27% rise in petroleum prices.

The labour unions, led by the Trades Union Congress (TUC), also want an immediate increase in wages. The leadership of organized labour (numbering about 500,000) planned further street actions, including a two-day nationwide strike that would cripple government business. That move has been curtailed because the government has called the workers’ leaders back to the negotiating table for further talks, which the workers’ leaders have accepted.

As such, they have suspended their road map of industrial actions to provide ample time for government to find an amicable solution to their demands. (See https://www.ghanaweb.com/GhanaHomePage/NewsArchive/Labour-suspends-planned-strike-409742)

Employment and Labour Relations Minister, Haruna Iddrisu, had told Joy News that new proposals to organized labour would get them to back down on further industrial action. And true to his word, the backing down has happened.

On the sideline, the Teachers and Educational Workers Union (TEWU) has called off its strike following a meeting with the Fair Wages and Salaries Commission and the association of Vice Chancellors of Ghana. TEWU’s strike lasted for just a week and members have resolved to go back to the negotiation table with the Fair Wages and Salaries Commission (FWSC).

The National Chairman of TEWU Peter Lumor confirmed the group’s decision to go back to the lecture room. Members of TEWU went on strike to demand the resolution of wide inequalities between the salaries of Senior and junior staff. The National Labour Commission (NLC) had declared the strike illegal and threatened to withdraw the salaries of TEWU members. (See https://www.ghanaweb.com/GhanaHomePage/NewsArchive/TEWU-suspends-strike-410138).

Meantime, partisan political interests have found their way into the matter. For the government, such strike actions are not only unproductive but they also undermine the spirit of give-and-take. As already known, the government is adamant that it cannot sit at the negotiation table with its employees when they go on strike, meaning that it won’t bow to pressure to operate from a position of disadvantage.

Of course, only the government knows the truth about the country’s “purse” and should be given the benefit of the doubt. It cannot give its employees what is not available; neither would it want to bow to pressure to raise emoluments that will endanger the national economy. But is it to be taken for granted that the government is being honest and truthful? In our kind of politics, we will always take anything from the corridors of power with a pinch of salt. Don’t blame us because we know how the tide flows.

We are particularly catty because we fear our politicians in power, especially when we know how they manipulate the situation to gain personal advantage at the expense of the masses. By their deeds have we come to know them.

One significant element that we shouldn’t lose sight of is the revelation by the leaders of organized labour negotiating with government that they had to bend back because after being shown figures/certain facts behind the government’s decision to raise tariffs, they were persuaded to see eye-to-eye with the government; hence, their willingness to tone down on their stance.

We read that the figures/facts/evidence on the need to raise the tariffs for the Electricity Company of Ghana (or any other institution involved in the energy sector) to remain afloat were doubtlessly strong to make the leaders of organized labour buy into the government’s arguments; hence, their softening of their stance. No more strike action until…..

Many questions arise therefrom. What is sacrosanct about those facts/figures/evidence on the energy situation that the government won’t make available to the generality of Ghanaians? Why keep it secret and release to only the leaders of organized labour called to the negotiation table? And what guarantee is there that those leaders are genuinely selfless enough to accept those facts/figures/evidence as th e truth inviolate that will work in the interest of those they are leading?

Knowing very well who the Ghanaian placed in authority is, I am not persuaded that all is well here. Has much water not passed under the bridge already to make us doubt what we have to doubt? Allegations are rife that workers’ leaders often end up being bribed to budge at such negotiations. It’s all about personal advantage, once given the power to represent others. And these “others” have no way to reverse what has been reached. The question, then, is what will happen next? Are workers to be kept on tenterhooks while their leaders hob-nob with government in circumstances that don’t assuage doubts, suspicions, and apprehensions? Who is gaining from this situation?

Now, to the real substance about partisan politics and how some unscrupulous elements may want to manipulate the situation. We know that whenever there is any agitation t the workers’ front, there is always a hidden political hand behind everything. The history of industrial actions by Ghana’s organized labour has a lot to offer us. From the First Republic to the current one, not to talk about the period of the military governments, labour agitations have always been poisoned by the partisan political dose.

Nkrumah used the TUC (leaders) to advantage. If you doubt it, read about the role of John Tettegah. Under Busia, the TUC had it tough. So was it with Rawlings until he turned civilian and learnt how to do things with civility at the labour front. His successors also did their best to walk the tightrope with leaders of organized labour until now that John Mahama seems to be incurring their displeasure. But there is more to it.

We won’t bore you any further with anything preceding this Fourth Republic and will settle on what has come from the NPP’s front about the current situation. As has been reported, Nana Akomea (NPP’s Communication Director) has described the stance of leaders of the Trades Union Congress (TUC)—who are demanding that tariffs should not be increased beyond 50 per cent across the board—as too lenient. He argued that any increase in utility tariffs and fuel prices should be proportional to the percentage increase in salaries received by public sector workers.

“They should be asking for increases [in tariffs] of not more than 17 per cent to be in line with inflation and the 10 per cent increment [in salary]. Ghanaian workers have every right to protest, and the TUC has been generous. (See https://www.ghanaweb.com/GhanaHomePage/NewsArchive/Tariff-hikes-Labour-being-too-lenient-410125)

Folks, do you see where the NPP people want to move this issue? Meantime, they have forgotten that under Kufuor, workers went on strike in pursuit of similar demands. What, then, is new in this latest development, except that some hidden hands are desperately pushing buttons to cause mischief?

I am happy that the workers’ leaders have seen reason and are backing down on their stance while waiting for the government to act responsibly. Their stance is informed by the facts/figures/evidence provided by the government to help them see the light. Why is it difficult for the government to release those same fcts/figures/evidence to the general public so they can also make informed judgement about the situation regarding the tariff hikes?

By not opening everything up, the government has failed. It is disheartening!! An informed citizenry will be better positioned to sympathize with the government than make themselves available for the opposition to deceive, manipulate, and use for negative politicking. Who in government is really responsible anymore?

I shall return…

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Columnist: Bokor, Michael J. K.