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Opinions of Wednesday, 5 July 2006

Columnist: Bannerman, Nii Lantey Okunka

Slaving In Our Own Country In The Name Of Foreign Investment

During my visit to Ghana in June 06, I stopped by one sunny afternoon at a place called “On the Run” to quench my thirst with frothing lager beer. This mart is right next to the 37 military hospital heading towards the airport. It is actually next to the license office in Accra.

Please forgive my description for there is no number address for this real estate and million others in Ghana. Have we not made enough noise about the latter? Someday we will revisit this issue again and hopefully, very soon. Back to the issue!!

So, at the On the Run mart, I inquired about the cost of a bottle of regular beer. I don’t deal with mini beer when I am thirsty. The price was twelve thousand cedis ($1.33 roughly). The price is relatively high but I reckon overhead must account partly for the high price. It is indeed a nice, clean air conditioned and welcoming place. At this point, my curiosity started perking and peaking simultaneously. So, after my first refreshing gulp, I sat down and motioned the person who served me to come over. The following is what I discovered.

My first question to the attendant was about the high price of beer at their joint. To my utmost surprise, he said, well you can take the bottle with you. Oh, I said, the bottle is part of the cost? He said, “Yes”. I said, wait a minute, so I can buy a beer here, get it uncorked, walk back into my car and drive off into the ether? I mean quaffing my way to hell? “Sure”, he said! Given that drunk driving is a serious problem in Ghana, I hope our authorities will find a way to address this practice immediately. No place in Ghana must be allowed to serve beer that can be transported in an open container across town in a live vehicle. Ghanaians love their beer but we cannot be so brazen and reckless. It is just not a smart thing to do and we should have laws on the book that addresses this problem immediately. I don’t know who else is doing this in Ghana but I am sure these foreign business owners cannot do this in their countries!

Continuing with the attendant, I fingered him about how much they are paid? He said, four hundred thousand cedis (approximately $45) per month averagely. So, I further asked how many hours they had to work for four hundred thousand cedis? Then he said something that changed my mood entirely. He said, well, we don’t work the stipulated hours. We just work!! Some days you get off on time some days you have to stay and work donkey hours and for that, we get no overtime, or time off for working extra tedious hours. So in effect, these poor folks are made to work for free when the boss feels like it. Are these employees on salary or hourly workers? Even if they are on salary should they not be compensated for working overtime? Look carefully at what is happening, they are not being paid well and to add insult to injury, they are made to work for free? So here is what I did, I checked this info with other workers at the same location and another worker at a different location but same organization. It turned out that the story was the same everywhere.

What further irritated me was this. The business was not even owned by Ghanaians. This is not to suggest that Ghanaian owned businesses are free to rough ride their workers. However, for a foreign owned company to muster the chutzpah, to blatantly abuse Ghanaian workers in our own country? If this is not arrogance what is? This particular “On the Run” mart is owned by someone from Zimbabwe, I was told. Supposedly, a business franchised by a group of foreign businessmen. Now, I don’t know if the owner is aware or not but the practices that prevail at his mart are plainly inhuman. These workers are not slaves. They do have rights and our government must make sure that these rights are protected. We must never, in the name of attracting foreign investors, give up the rights of poor and innocent Ghanaian workers. A right to do business in Ghana must not be a license to abuse workers and disobey the law. This, coming on the heels of “maggotgate”, a situation where foul four, infested with giant size maggots, was brazenly used for biscuits by a foreign company, and ravenously consumed by innocent Ghanaians, calls for serious action. We may be poor but poverty is not synonymous to being treated badly. Being poor must not translate into an abrogation of rights.

The other side of this annoying specter is the role of our own brothers and sisters, who, given positions in these organizations; end up being the enforcers for these foreign owned organizations. The attendant mentioned in our conversation that, the black (Ghanaian) managers were even worse than the “Lebanese” or “white” managers. In fact, the attendant admitted that some of the “whites” treated them better than their own fellow Ghanaians. He also intimated that these Ghanaian managers are paid far more inordinately than the attendants, even though they do the bulk of the work. Now, why would a Ghanaian treat his fellow worker or subordinate worse than a non-Ghanaian? Is it a lack of better management practices? What kind of training are these managers undergoing? Why is the owner turning a blind eye to such management highhandedness? Do the subordinates deserve such treatment because of their own actions or inactions on the job? What recourse do these employees have if they still want to keep their jobs? I would like to know the answers to these questions and many more. God knows we can use investors but certainly not those without conscience or social sensibilities.

The bottom line for me is this; we must not allow our folks to be abused because the job situation is terrible in Ghana. These workers are fired just for either airing an opinion or perhaps disagreeing with the manager. There is so much fear on the job that the manager becomes the village idiot that we all love to detest. The fact is that, these businesses are making a nice mint. They make enough money to pay their managers well so why not the poor workers? Why such disparity in pay? Is it because the managers are the enforcers? Why not make the workplace a tad better for these suffering workers? I mean will transportation alone not eat up the four hundred thousand cedis pittance of a pay? If the company is not making money, I can sympathize but given the lofty prices of its pizza, beer, stale sandwiches and other items, it must be in a position to pay its overworked workers well.

So where does organization like the TUC and whatever is left of the worker’s movement come in? Do we have advocates or Ombudsmen scanning the business environment for unscrupulous business practices? Where really are the leaders who should be looking out for the poor Ghanaian? These days, every organization is so politicized that, no one dare go to bat for the average Ghanaian. What our leaders tend to forget is that if one Ghanaian is abused, we are all abused. We lose our human dignity if we stand and watch hard working Ghanaians stripped of their labor rights and worked like mules to the benefit of foreign organizations, whose sole aim to scoop profits out of our country at all cost. We will never be respected for as long as others believe they can take a section of our people for a jarring ride.

This is the time to set precedents that will shape the labor landscape for years to come. Our ministers and leaders must open their eyes and demand of all foreign investors, and for that matter all businesses, decent treatment of Ghanaian workers based on local and international labor laws. This goes for all companies in Ghana. If laws are not on the books, make them. If our labor laws are obsolete update or rewrite them. Let these businesses fund an independent office that will work to make sure that our people are respected and treated lawfully. We must never be modern day slaves in our own country. No, not at all. Running a business to make profit is not a reason to mistreat hardworking folks. Making profits and treating your employees well can coexist. We must nip this in the bud before another subset of neocolonialism firmly plants its tentacles in mother Ghana. I mean, if it is not already there. Let us welcome foreign businesses but with a strong message of fairness for all workers. Viva Ghana!

Views expressed by the author(s) do not necessarily reflect those of GhanaHomePage.