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Opinions of Tuesday, 4 November 2014

Columnist: Ata, Kofi

Should Striking Workers be Paid in Ghana?

By Kofi Ata, Cambridge, UK November 2, 2014

Labour agitations and strikes are not uncommonly throughout the world and in some countries organised labour have brought down even the most powerful governments. Typical amongst them is the Polish Trade Union Federation (Solidarity) that emerged on 31 August 1980 at the Gdansk Shipyard under the leadership of Lech Walesa. The first non-Communist Party controlled trade union in a Warsaw Pact country that eventually brought down the Community Party government and precipitated the end of communism in Poland. In others, attempts by organised labour to take on governments have ended disastrously with the unions gored badly and weakened beyond recognition such as the National Union of Mineworkers under the leadership of Arthur Scargill in the UK during Margaret Thatcher’s premiership in 80s. Though in Ghana organised labour have not constituted similar threats to governments as the examples mentioned, unions have given considerable worries to every government since independence, including military dictatorships.

The purpose of this article is to discuss the thorny issues strikes in Ghana and whether striking workers should be paid for the period of the strike in the wake of strike action by members of twelve unions in dispute over their second tier pension scheme. Let me point out that this is not to suggest that strikes by workers or public sector workers should be banned. No, because workers have the right to embark on strikes in a democratic society.

Despite Nkrumah’s government being pro organised labour, it had its fair share of disputes with trade unions. The situation was no better under the Second Republic when the Prime Minister, Dr Busia was compelled to take drastic measures to curtail the powers of trade unions. There were rumours that unions were virtually banned though I do not believe he could have done so under a constitutional government. The Acheampong/Akuffo military junta (National Redemption/Supreme Military Councils) were strongly opposed by trade unions so was the Limann government when he personally assumed the position of Managing Director of the then Black Star Line in an attempt to end ongoing strike by the staff. Labour agitation under Rawlings led PNDC/NDC governments increased because of the Structural Adjustment Programme that saw massive retrenchment of public sector workers. President Kufuor’s government also bore the brunt of organised labour and at one time he had to call in the military to take over Ridge Hospital before striking nurses and doctors returned to work. The story is no different under the Mills/Mahama era and organised labour continues to give the Mahama led government a run for its money.

Strikes in Ghana are often embarked upon by public sector workers and also predominantly by teaching and health professionals (teachers, lecturers, nurses, doctors and pharmacists, etc). Trade unions resort to strikes to secure better pay and conditions for their members who are often poorly paid with bad service conditions in Ghana. It appears strikes have reached unprecedented levels under the Fourth Republic when workers see politicians serve four years as MPs and ministers and go home with fantastic retirement packages that organised labour members could only dream of. For example, there are reports of middle level civil servants and teachers retiring after twenty to thirty years service and take home GHc 6,000 as lump sum and a monthly pension of GHc 300.

Despite the urgency for the state employer (government) to ameliorate the plight of retired public workers, lip service is paid to such issues by those responsible for taking decisions on pensions of public sector workers and other pay and conditions. Consequently, organised labour is compelled to use strike as a bargaining chip and therefore strikes have become the first option instead of a means of last resort because that is the only language government understands.

Another sad element of the persistent labour unrest in Ghana is the politicisation of strikes with the two leading political parties taking sides. As usual in Ghana, when NDC and NPP partisan politics takes over any subject, important matters for national discourse get lost in translation and that is exactly what is happening to the current strike over the second tier pensions with NPP supporting the unions and NDC supporting government. In the end workers and that nation as a whole become the victims.

From what I have read about the second tier pension scheme controversy and the reasons why unions are on strike as well as my understanding of management and administration of work based pension schemes, I put the blame squarely on the weakness and failure of Ghana’s National Pension Regulatory Authority. According to media reports, the unions suspect that government loaned the second tier pension contributions to Fortis Group which was used to purchase the state bank (Merchant Bank). It is also alleged that some administrators and trustees appointed by government for the scheme have dodgy characters (of either involvement in the GYEEDA/SADA corruption and being ordered to refund money wrongly or illegally received to the state and another heading a private company that was involved in illegal electricity connection and indebted to the state, etc.).

On the other hand, the government accuses the union leaders of being instigated by the opposition to take their contributions and lodge them with the bank controlled by a relative of the opposition party’s presidential candidate so that the opposition leader could access the funds to run his 2016 presidential campaign. It is again alleged that the bank was once involved in a fraudulent housing scheme that millions of investors’ money was squandered as well the bank owing millions in unpaid taxes to the Ghana Revenue Authority.

If the above allegations have any substance, then, the National Pensions Regulatory Authority must investigate them and if substantiated, ban all the personalities and corporate bodies found culpable from managing and administering not only the second tier pension scheme but all pension schemes and even some financial services. But because the regulatory authority is weak, nothing is being done with workers and the nation caught up in the propaganda game of NDC/NPP partisan politics, whilst the economy suffers.

Do workers have the sole right to determine who manage and administer work based pension scheme? The answer is no, not even in the private sector. It is a joint decision between the employer and organised labour with the main responsibility lying heavily with the employer to ensure that pensions are not only safe but also invested in secured and high yielding returns in the best interests of both members (organised labour) and the employer (government). This is because when something goes wrong or the scheme goes bust due bad investment decisions, the employer has moral duty to assist members financially through some form of compensation as organised labour would not be in a position to do so should such unfortunate eventuality occur.

Strikes cause the nation in millions of lost revenue, taxes and even lives when the striking workers are in health sector. Again, because the workers are not producing but paid for staying at home or doing nothing for the state, it escalates the rate of inflation and worsens the budget deficit. Labour unrests are also disincentive to foreign investment. Strikes therefore cause considerable damage to the economy and a direct threat to potential economic recovery, especially, in Ghana.

Another worrying element of strikes in Ghana is that most of the public sector striking workers do engage in private activity for which they are paid for whilst on strike. For example, there are reports that when public teachers and lecturers go on strike, many teach and lecture in private institutions or privately. The same applies to nurses and doctors who work in private hospitals and even direct patients from state hospitals to the private hospitals they work. Other non professionals also own small shops which they attend to whilst striking. Because they earn double when on strike, it is in their interest for the strike to continue as long as they wish. This situation does not encourage public sector organised labour to use the negotiating table to resolve labour disputes with their employer.

The general principle of employment law is that, one does not get paid for no work done as long as the employer provides work to be undertaken by the worker but the worker refuses to perform his or her duties without good reason (such as incapacitation through illness). In most countries workers are not paid when they embark on strike action, whether legal or illegal. For this reason, organised labour use strike as a means of last resort and strikes shorter and staggered over a period (one strike every month). In some cases, unions pay their members for the lost income as a result of the strike action. In fact, when unions do not pay workers for lost income, long periods of strike action often result in division between its members and the leadership, which could eventually lead to an unofficial end to the strike as some workers ignore their union and return to work.

Unfortunately, that is not the case in Ghana and as a result strikes often last for longer periods. The recent strike by the Polytechnic teachers lasted over three months, yet they were paid their monthly salaries throughout the period, whilst many of them were teaching privately. It pays to strike in Ghana as striking workers are most likely to gain twice.

For the above reasons, I believe that it is now time for government and organised labour as well as the nation to have a dispassionate, non-partisan discussion on workers’ needs, the national interest and agree that striking workers forfeit their pay. This could be done through gradual withdrawal. For example, the first week could attract a third forfeiture of salary, second week continuous, half, third week three-quarters and fourth week, whole. The government should not use such agreement as ransom not to act on grievances of organised labour but rather as incentive to work together for the sake of the nation.

In fact, the discussion must take a bi-partisan or multi party approach so that legislation would be passed to support any agreement between organised labour and the employer (government). NPP should support this approach because when they are in government they could face the same problems with organised labour. It does not help any of the two main parties taking sides on this matter. However, if organised labour/unions refuse to such agreement, then government should use its majority to pass legislation to withhold striking workers’ pay during the period of the strike. The interests of the nation and workers should be at the heart of this debate. What do you think?

Kofi Ata, Cambridge, UK