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Opinions of Sunday, 17 October 2010

Columnist: Abugri, George Sydney

Help, Dr. Odoom has high jacked my pension cash!

Ghana: Help, Dr. Odoom has high jacked my pension cash!

By George Sydney Abugri

Jomo, I am sending out a distress call to all pension lawyers in and outside Ghana to rally to my prompt legal rescue, so that we can tear up in bits and make a mini-bonfire of the most stupid law ever to be written in Ghana’s statutes-the SSNIT Pension Law.

Pardon me if today the tone of my prose falls short of the traditional demands of courteous conversation, because I am thoroughly upset, exasperated, aggravated, very vexed, truly piqued, peeved right down to the bone marrow and well and truly pissed off!

One of the grand patriarchs of Ghanaian journalism the late Professor Paul Ansah, a great media scholar, columnist and Catholic gentlemen, typically began his trademark angry, anti-establishment discourses with a declaration that he was going to town on an issue and that there were likely to be casualties.

Since I started writing a weekly column in the Graphic nearly two decades ago, my own forays into town have been very restrained and far between.

There is indeed a time to hug your prized peace to your chest and a time to pick up the weapons of self-preservation and survival and go to war. A time to remain domesticated and a time to go to town.

So off to town I go today old chap. I anticipate that when I am done, some people at the Social Security and National Trust will be all over me like a hail of ten-tonne steel bricks and rejoinders fly like sparks.

The President of the republic should be very interested in this case and so should the Trades Union Congress, the National Labour Commission, the Constitutional Review Commission, the Ghana Employers Association, the Commission for Human Rights and Administrative Justice and every working individual young and old. You know why, Jomo?

Mine is the very first such case in the history of the Social Security Scheme in Ghana and it provides a landmark opportunity to test the legal propriety of Ghana’s pension law, which appears to have a wide, open corridor for all kinds of interpretation and misinterpretation:

Thanks to this law, someone at the Social Security and National Insurance Trust has been holding onto my pension cash since May this year and I am wondering whether he has stolen it, is keeping the darned cash for the sheer pleasure of denying me what is rightfully mine or waiting for me to die so that he can squander it.

Hey what is up with you old, chap? Are you gone round the bend or merely exhibiting symptoms of a premature senility syndrome of sorts?

No sir, Jomo. I have my faculties about me. Then how could you claim SSNIT is stealing your pension money when you have not proceeded on retirement from public service yet?

It is as long and winding a tale as strange tales ever get but let me try to condense it: I first trained as a professional teacher and spent a whole decade beginning from 1971, teaching in a long list of primary, middle and second cycle schools along a torturous trail of towns and villages in the Northern, Upper East and Upper West Regions:

Tamale, Bawku, Bongo Beon {near Bongo} Bolgatanga, Wa and Tanina near Pisi on the southernmost fringes of the Upper West Region! At one stage in the mid-1970s, I actually taught in as many as five schools simultaneously, as a zonal science teacher in the Bolgatanga Distrcit!

Then I migrated to journalism 40 years ago, starting my career with the investigative weekly The Punch and ending up at the Graphic in 1982.

I attained the age of 60 in April 2010. My records at the Social Security and National Insurance Trust {SSNIT} clearly indicate my social security number, date of birth and date of enrolment in the Social Security Scheme.

As a result of an error for which I accept total responsibility, my age in my employers’ records is indicated as 59 years instead of the correct age of 60.

Apart from the error made in the process of providing personal information at the time of my employment, I have met all the requirements for accessing my contributions. The minimum number of monthly contributions a worker is expected to make to qualify for pension pay is 180 months. I have contributed for 448 months as at September ending, 2010!

I went to see the people at SSNIT with warm greetings: Hi buddies, my time is up can I have my pension cash? They all but slammed the door in my face

Since May this year, SSNIT has insisted that without written confirmation from my employers that I have indeed retired, the Trust cannot allow me access to my contributions.

My employers have declined to write to SSNIT confirming my age because of the error in their records.

SSNIT says I cannot access my contributions since I shall continue to work for my present employer until 2011 and it is wrong for a contributor to be allowed access to his contributions while still working.

My employers have argued that since it clear from SSNIT’s own records that I have reached the age of 60, SSNIT is obliged to pay my benefits without recourse to the Graphic Communications Group.

My employers insist that throughout the history of the company, SSNIT has always effected pension payment to the company’s retiring employees on its own determination, without any recourse to the company.

The statement that a contributor to the SSNIT scheme cannot access their contributions while still working is incorrect, since for many years now, the company has been re-engaging many retiring workers of the company on contract and they have always continued to be paid while drawing on their pension. That is what my employers argued.

I petitioned the National Pensions Regulatory Authority to intervene, whereupon, the affable Chairman of the NPRA, Mr. Kwaku Asante forwarded my petition to SSNIT and requested SSNIT to address its response directly to me.

President Mills’s man at the headship of SSNIT, Dr. Frank Odoom sent me a response in which he wrote that “We {SSNIT} wish to sate EMPHATICALLY that a letter from your current employer indicating to SSNIT that you have retired is a requirement without which you cannot access your Social Security benefits. This is to ensure that a member does not access his social security benefit while working, because it is meant to replace lost income.”

A flood of questions raced through my mind crying for answers: Did I not have the right to access money that I had earned from my own toil and sweat for 40 years? What if I had left the services of my present employer ten years ago and been self-employed. Would Dr. Odoom ask me to return to my old employer on attaining the age of 60 to ask my old employer to confirm my age?

Does SSNIT depend on its own records to effect pension payments or those of employers? What is going to happen to the money I am entitled to draw from May 2010 up till the time I leave my present employment?

In his response to my petition, Dr. Odoom writes that” SSNIT will not retire you because its records indicate that you have attained the statutory retirement age of 60. The retirement of workers is the prerogative of the employers only.”

Ho, ho! Imagine that! The man knows full well that I am not asking SNNIT to retire me and that I am demanding that SSNIT allow me access to my contributions.

SSNIT has pasted retirement and pension information posters in offices and workplaces throughout the country. The only conditions given for accessing a worker’s contributions are that the worker “must have attained the age of 60”, that “a reduced pension can be paid between the ages of 55 and 59” and that the worker “must have contributed for a minimum of 180 months.” As I indicated, I have contributed for 448 months.

Attitudes I have encountered among friends and in the corridors of Pension House toward my predicament have ranged from mild interest, indifference and puzzlement to a total lack of sympathy. Some thought I had only my hapless self to blame.

Then there were those who reminded me that there was more to retirement than going home to swing in a hammock: Are you really well prepared and ready? I assured them that I had attended many pre-retirement seminars sponsored by my employer.

Why do you want to go on retirement when many retiring workers are tripping over each other to return to work on contract? I tell them my preoccupation is with gaining access to my contributions.

While we await the rejoinders, methinks we must go before a judge and put this stupid law to a rigorous legal test, don’t you think?

Email: georgeabu@hotmail.com Website: www.sydneyabugri.com