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Opinions of Monday, 10 August 2015

Columnist: Ata, Kofi

Should Striking Public Workers in Ghana be Paid?

By Kofi Ata, Cambridge, UK August 9, 2015

Ghana is regularly besieged by public sector strikes in support of demands for better pay, service conditions, payment of salary and allowance arrears, etc. In fact, since the introduction of the Single Spine Salary Structure for public sector workers in 2010 that led to seventy percent of internally generated revenue being spent on public sector wage bill, public workers’ agitation for more and the use of strike action have increased to unprecedented levels. Currently, workers of Ministry of Justice and Attorney General’s Department are on strike whilst members of Ghana Medical Association (GMA) in the public sector have totally withdrawn their services and other public health professionals such as Pharmacists, Midwives and Nurses have threatened to go on strike if their demands were not met. In the same vein, graduate teaching unions have also threatened to go on strike for similar demands. This article is the analysis of public workers’ insatiable appetite to strike for salary increment and various allowances with particular reference to that of GMA members and recommendations for reducing the perennial strikes in Ghana

In industrial relations, strike as bargaining power/tactics and a means to an end has been relied on by organised labour since time immemorial. It is often used to achieve social, economic and political objectives. Among the most well known of such strikes by organised labour in the last century were the one year strike by the National of Union of Miners led by Arthur Scargill that tried but failed to bring down the Thatcher government in the 80s and Solidarity’s Gda?sk Shipyard strike that toppled the then Community Dictatorship in Poland. In 2014, polytechnic lecturers embarked on one of the longest strike actions by a teaching union in Ghana. In the UK, transport unions often call 24 hours strikes during the peak of the summer holidays also for better pay and improved services conditions.

The major difference in the above examples in Europe and Ghana is that, striking workers in Ghana continue to receive their monthly salary paid by the employer (the state or government), whilst in the developed and richer countries, workers who withdraw their services through strike action do not receive pay from the employer. Instead, their wages and salaries are paid by their respective trade unions or sponsors. For example, the Gda?sk Shipyard strike lasted longer and was successful because Solidarity received substantial financial support from western governments. UK trade unions no longer embark on long and continuous strike actions not only because they are financially unsustainable but also public sympathy for their cause will disappear. Across the world, globalisation and easy access to well qualified labour in other countries have reduced the powers of organised labour and its ability to resort to strike action to compel or blackmail employers to capitulate to their demands and therefore strikes are becoming less fashionable.

So, why is organised labour in Ghana becoming militant and more likely to resort to strike action in support of their demands? There are varied reasons for the perennial strikes in Ghana.

First, among them is the colonial legacy of numerous allowances paid to different categories of professionals within the public sector. These allowances (free accommodation, chauffer driven transport, free fuel, domestic assistance, including gardeners, free medical, etc) were introduced by colonial government to entice their citizens to come to the then Gold Cost as civil servants to compensate for the risks of living and working in Africa. On attainment of independence these allowances were maintained for Ghanaians who replaced the Europeans. This was necessary at the time since there were very few qualified Ghanaians. However, successive governments have kept these allowances for the elites in society, irrespective of their necessity or affordability.

The other reason is financial. The Ghanaian currency depreciates in value so fast that within a year, the real value of the currency makes the take home of workers meaningless. Another economic factor is the high rate of inflation in Ghana also causing fast erosion in the pay packets of workers. Public workers who are paid by the state/government have no option but to demand more as government is seen as the cause of the currency depreciation and sharp rise in inflation. Salary increment demands and allowances therefore serve as means of topping up their monthly and annual salaries.

A peculiar reason is what I describe as “cash cow” for certain group of public officers known as “Article 71 post holders”. This is a pull factor for other public sector workers to demand more. Again, the salaries and emoluments of politicians (both elected and unelected) are such that, well qualified professionals feel cheated by their politicians. These two factors are a constitutional albatross on Ghanaian the tax payer.

The last but not the least, is the corruption and lifestyle of politicians who openly display opulence and show off their ill-gotten wealth. Whilst a well qualified professional worker is unable to afford a reasonable means of livelihood after over a decade service, a politician acquires expensive assets within a very short time and openly flaunts them.

The GMA strike has received many criticisms and even condemnation from various quarters after their demands were made public. But considering the pull factors above who can blame the doctors for making such demands? The fact is that most senior public officials in Ghana enjoy numerous allowances as a percentage of their annual salary. Put together, often the allowances are more than the annual salary. The doctors are therefore not demanding anything different from what others in the public sector already enjoy, except that the public are unaware.

Of course, I am not suggesting that the GMA is right to demand what was contained in the document that was leaked. From what has been reported by the media, it appears the parties involved in the negotiations lack proper understanding of industrial relations and the negotiation strategies to resolve the impasse amicably. For example, one of the doctors’ demands is the payment of a lump sum after fifteen years of continuous service. At the same time, the GMA Deputy General Secretary, Dr Justice Yakson stated that they would resign en masse if their demands were not met by government. If they resigned prior to their demands being accepted, then they would have lost all the previous years of service that could have countered towards the minimum fifteen years continuous service. That is an indication of his lack of knowledge in employment law and understanding of service condition negotiations. The same applies on the part of government negotiators as well as the National Labour Commission (NLM).

For example, government and the NLM claim the strike is illegal. There is nothing like illegal strike unless ruled so by a court of competent jurisdiction. This is because all free men and women have the right to withdraw their services for whatever reasons. Even the military who sign a bond to serve a minimum period can object to continuous service and withdraw their service as conscientious objector. Strikes are therefore part and parcel of industrial relations and a right for free workers. This is not about morality but the question of welfare of workers. In any case, no one enforces the law and no one complies with the law in Ghana.

Another unfortunate aspect of the GMA demands was the politics of equalisation, especially, the demand to be flown abroad for medical treatment as done for politicians when the requisite health services or facilities are not available in Ghana. One would have expected that medical doctors would have fought for such services and facilities to be made available in Ghana by demanding that every year a budget should be set aside by the government to acquire such non-existence health services and facilities so that Ghanaians and not only politicians and medical doctors (the chosen few) will have the privilege of receiving such treatment.

Finally, the GMA also failed to conduct the affordability test on their demands. Just imagine if they were in private practice and their employees made the same demands, would they have been able to afford it as employers? The same should apply to the public sector. Ghana should be treated as a corporate body that must pay its way from available resources but not a cash cow to be milked like cocoa farmers.

What are the solutions to curtailing the culture of strikes by organised labour in Ghana’s pub sector? The answers are very simple, reduce or eliminate the pull factors. First, paying workers’ salary whilst on strike makes no economic sense and indeed an incentive for workers not only to go on strike but prolonged strikes. In fact, in the case of most professional workers such as doctors and lecturers, it’s more lucrative to strike because they work in private hospitals or provide private tutoring whilst on strike. They therefore get double pay whilst on strike and that is why polytechnic lecturers’ strike lasted that long. Ghana must stop paying workers who withdraw services through strike action.

The next action must be a gradual reduction of the numerous allowances paid to different public workers such as free fuel, cars, accommodation, etc. In fact, these are members of society who are relatively well paid than ordinary public workers, who pay for their transport, housing etc. Such allowances should be consolidated into salaries so that all public workers receive a living wage/salary. That is what Single Spine Salary was to achieve.

The emoluments paid to Article 71 office holders are problematic as the constitution has created a category of public officers who are more equal than others. It should be abolished and all public servants given affordable and realistic emoluments commensurate to their education, experience, skills, length of service, etc. In fact, in the days of military takeovers, Article 71 holders’ reward would have been a perfect reason for the military to intervene.

The prudent management of the economy by governments will go a long way to stabilise the currency and reduce hyper inflation. That would lead to a check on the the fast erosion of the value of wages and salaries in real terms and and reduce the need for workers to demand wage and salary increment every now and then.

Corruption and ostentatious lifestyles by politicians should stop. The fight against corruption should be taken seriously and politicians and other senior public officers must be compelled to declare their assets when elected and appointed and at the end of their service.

These are short, medium and long-term solutions. Immediately and as a matter of urgency, the government should introduce an emergency bill in parliament to stop paying salaries of striking workers. However, this should not be used as a licence for the government to ignore the legitimate demands of public workers. Finally the NLC must be strengthened and resourced adequately to be able to enforce labour laws and its decisions.

Kofi Ata, Cambridge, UK