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Opinions of Thursday, 22 January 2015

Columnist: Ebenezer Afanyi Dadzie

Working for poor wages; Ghana’s example stinks

Over the last decade of my working life in Ghana, I have come across innumerable Ghanaian employees in different sectors who tell heartbreaking tales of how they struggle to consistently provide quality meals, decent clothing and good shelter for themselves and at times for their families, with what they term ‘slavery salaries’ at the end of a thorny month’s work in their in homeland.

Don’t be flabbergasted somebody wants to chat about this subject that is somewhat considered “abominable or a no-go-area” in our system? Your interest should be stimulated because this subject envelopes many of us. This is much about people’s experiences as I have observed, and also as a prey of this social injustice. One reason why this is a no-go-area is simply because people feel ashamed to talk about the miserable sums they take home after over-working themselves. The consequence of this loud silence has only emboldened many employers to perpetuate this appalling treatment as political leadership looks on unconcerned.

It is an undeniable fact that every company’s most important asset is its human resource; and the employers say it with seriousness, yet the same humans suffer the worst forms of mistreatment as machines and logistics are rather given utmost care. My work experience has largely been in journalism. But this article will attempt to scrutinize the subject holistically, although many examples, which are real life stories, may hang around the Ghanaian media landscape.

Admittedly, the state of a country’s economy positively or otherwise affects its wages. And the Ghanaian economy is evidently not at par with economies like the USA, UK, Germany, France and others. But it appears this is not a major factor for the comparatively poor wages paid to Ghanaian workers both in white-collar and menial jobs.

It seems employers are greedily making good use of the worsening unemployment rate in the sub-region to suffocate workers who fear to quit these jobs. A University graduate in Ghana puts it aptly when he said, “Looking for a job in Ghana or anywhere in Africa, is like knocking on a very thick metal gate, nobody hears you”.

But it appears the belief is that the poor wages in Ghana and parts of Africa is simply because the African or black employer is just greedy, a cheat, dishonest or harshly put, wicked. This certainly sounds racist and contentious; but could there be some truth in it?

This is a country or a continent where employers often times hide behind the mantra ‘low productivity’ on the part of workers just to pay disgusting and pitiful salaries. You may be incensed or oppose this view if you are an employer because some employees indeed lazy about no matter how well they are paid. But whose duty is it to ensure productivity in any serious working environment? Is it the employee or the employer? It is the employer who puts structures in place be it human or machinery to achieve the desired productivity. This is because humans by nature are unpredictable and can fail involuntarily or otherwise. That is why in some companies people are given targets or Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) by which their productivity or otherwise is measured. And where an employee fails to deliver, the employer can terminate his or her appointment with recourse to functioning labour laws.

In Ghana, the low productivity mantra is often topical during the yearly discussions on the minimum wage when workers demand salary increases. But the truth is this; any serious private entrepreneur, will put structures in place to achieve productivity in his or her company. However, this is mostly not the case in government sector and in some private firms in Ghana. So simply put, if you want value for money, then you have a responsibility to set up structures to achieve that. This is the case in other serious jurisdictions.

Haven’t you heard the saying that Ghanaians are hardworking people especially when they travel outside? The truth is that, they were first hard-working in their homeland, but when their sweat is trampled upon with worthless wages coupled with dehumanizing abuses, they opt to sweat for strangers to have decent lives back home. More so, there are systems that ensure productivity in those jurisdictions and protect workers’ interest.

Now, having worked in the private media set-up in the last ten years, I can honestly say that, I have seen people, both young and old, work tirelessly beyond normal working hours to achieve tremendous results; some holders of degrees, others; HNDs, Diplomas, certificates and some who learnt on the job but are so competent. Some even closed the day’s work at midnight and are sometimes forced to sleep over because it is not a privilege for company drivers to take everyone home except some selected few. And almost everyone works seven days a week.

Even with those privileged to be driven home, sometimes the drivers, who equally overwork themselves refuse to drive them home because they are fatigued. Sometimes they did it when the employee promised them a gesture in cash or kind.

The commitment of workers’ efforts translated into huge following thereby increasing revenue. Yet the employees, whose sweat paid off never went home smiling. In fact, it was a tortuous journey for many workers by the middle of the month because the previous month’s pay had run out. So they looked forward for the new month’s salary only to pay debts some of which were overdrafts they took from the bank to survive. This is not because the workers were reckless with their spending; the wages were terribly bad and cruel.

The salary of one worker who was a reporter and a News Caster was a paltry 120 cedis from 2005 to 2008. From 2009-2010, he was made News Editor with a salary of 250 cedis. That should take care of all his needs. All these years of his hard work, he was even homeless at a point but the company ignored his plight. His story was just one of the many harrowing ones others went through.

Due to the poor wages, many workers are forced to secure bank loans either to rent rooms, furnish them or do other vital things because they had no savings in their accounts.

There were many instances where workers had no food to eat after bank deductions from their paltry salaries. And in that hunger, once they go on-air, they have to pretentiously deliver accurately and happily just to save the business. Workers became like a family just to be helping each other even if it’s a bowl of food that can be shared. In one of the experiences, workers never ended the year with smiles since there was nothing like Christmas bonuses by way of food items or additional money to spend with their families. And Christmas was work as usual. Nobody had a social life of his or her own.

Most of these companies were highly respected for their years of existence and successes making the public assume that workers were very much comfortable. This fallacy had its own burden on workers in their homes and communities.

I came across countless committed and hardworking people. But I feel I will be committing a social injustice if I don’t talk about one particular driver who was the longest serving workers in one of the companies. This driver had worked in that firm for 15 years with his highest salary being 240 cedis only in 2012. This was a man who was very loyal to the point that, even when company owners mistakenly left excess money in the car that he drove, he returned it intact. This was hard work and honesty. What else could an employer reward a worker for aside these two values?

This driver finally escaped that dungeon; and from 240 cedis for 15 years of hard labour where he left penniless, he was now earning 600 cedis net salary at his new job. That was higher than my salary at a new company with a so-called decent position. That’s just by the way. I was truly elated for him and so I congratulated him from the depth of my heart.

But again, my unpleasant perception about Ghanaian employers was deepened, when this driver told me that per the information available to him, he was to be paid much higher but his new Ghanaian boss, whom he chauffeurs, is just cheating him although he wasn’t bothered about it since he feels his life was much better now than before. He chauffeurs the head of a local NGO which is funded by an International Aid agency; and per the salary for drivers as was presented and approved by the donor agency, he should earn about 2,000 cedis. But not even half of that amount was being paid to any of the drivers. Then I asked myself what at all is wrong with the majority of Ghanaian employers? What is the feeling they get when they gain so much by cheating and being greedy?

Now, another 38 year old male friend who overworks as a Cameraman and doubles as a company driver is still earning 250 cedis after seven years of dedicated service. He has a wife and three children in school. He recently lamented bitterly to a friend in a phone-conversation that he was going to quit this year once he gets a new job. I felt very sad and prayed that God helps him find a new job; but will that mean a better pay?

Let me just ask this question; how much do you think this worker’s employer spends on units for his cell phones in a week? How much does he spend on fuel for his cars in a week or even in a day? And how much does he splash on his girlfriends (If he has any) who contribute nothing to the success of that business? Now, can someone tell me whether it is low productivity or the state of our economy that allows for this kind of cheating? The answer is no. It is sheer wickedness, greed, selfishness and disrespect to other humans. Sadly, majority of these employers either profess to be Christians or Moslems. In fact, some may even be leaders in their respective churches or Mosques.

A female friend with a Degree from the University of Ghana who once worked as a journalist in a radio station told me she was being paid 250 cedis as at 2010. Today, she works with a Foreign-based NGO in Ghana and earns what she terms respectable. She also thinks that poor wages in Ghana and parts of Africa, is simply because employers are selfish, greedy or wicked.

And this is what she said, “Eben, I have worked for a Ghanaian in the past and I have been working with an expatriate (white) for a while now; and I will tell you on any day that the expatriates are quite honest and they hardly cheat you once you are hardworking and honest. But that is not the case with us blacks. What at all is wrong with us?” she asked in awe and anger?

She went on; can you believe that even at my office, the white man who is my overall boss suggested that we should give extra 50 cedis to the national service personnel to take care of their transport. But to my surprise, my immediate boss, who is a Ghanaian kicked against it. And his argument was that when he did his national service 20 years ago they were walking to work. Eben can you imagine this? You see the Black man’s mentality; because he didn’t get it many years ago, somebody shouldn’t get it today. I can tell you for a fact that, even in the unlikely event that an expatriate employer cheats you in Ghana, it is the manipulation of a Ghanaian or black manager who is behind it.

“I know that some of these Lebanese, Chinese and Indians who have also stayed in Ghana for long also pay poorly because the Ghanaian employers are doing it”.

In a typical example of the comparison between a Ghanaian employer and an expatriate employer in relation to cheating, an incident occurred at a leading multi-national plastic company in Ghana where a white engineer who had been brought in to impact some new knowledge on the company’s Ghanaian engineers, ended up inciting them to lay down their tools over the low salaries they were being paid. The expatriate who got wind of their salary during an interaction with the workers, convinced them to start the strike promising to ensure that they are not victimized.

It emerged that the engineers’ per their competencies, needed to be paid much higher than what they were receiving and were also to be paid in the US dollar equivalent. The workers’, who started the strike albeit in fear, got the attention of the Ghanaian-expatriate management, but were threatened with dismissal. The expatriate Engineer, who clandestinely incited the act, quickly stepped in and suggested that the company could lose greatly if the experienced engineers were dismissed since their replacements will result in huge loses. After a few days of deliberations, the workers demands were met in the new month, thanks to the honesty of an expatriate.

In sampling random views for this article, I also came across a Ghanaian who chauffeurs an expatriate (white) consultant working for a paint company in Accra. According to the driver, he is paid 250 cedis a month and lives with his wife and two children who are both schooling in Accra. He says when the expatriate got to know how much he was earning; he expressed utter shock but couldn’t change the situation since he was also an employee. Instead, the expatriate buys him some groceries to the tune of nearly150 cedis at the end of every month as his token of support to him and his family.

Nevertheless, a Ghanaian, who has temporarily lived, schooled and worked for a few years in the United Kingdom, says the payment of poor wages or cheating by employers, may have nothing to do with skin colour or nationality. He says a British or an American cannot cheat an employee in the US or UK because the systems prohibit such exploitation. The labour law in those jurisdictions clearly spells out the minimum wage and benefits for all employees including non-citizens, and these are strictly enforced to the letter. But in Ghana and other countries globally, the laws are not enforced thereby bolstering employers particularly in the private sector to exploit workers.

“So in essence, the reason why some expatriates may not cheat when they come to Ghana is not because they are whites and so they are much more honest or generous unlike our people who we say are wicked, greedy or selfish, but that’s how the systems in their countries have trained them. But even that, there are some expatriates like the Lebanese, Chinese, Indians and even some Europeans who also cheat Ghanaian employees here in Ghana and it is because they know our systems are porous or even non-existent. And so that same expatriate who can cheat you in Ghana and go scot-free knows very well that he or she cannot do that to citizens or non-citizens in the UK or US once the person is a legal resident. So clearly the distinction is the systems and not the people” he noted.

He added “In the failed systems like Ghana, a worker who is injured in a workplace accident may never get the right compensation even if he becomes inactive for the rest of his life. And sadly, the company escapes punishment. On the other hand, the same worker in another jurisdiction is protected by the system to enjoy ample compensation from that firm sometimes for the rest of his life”.

Either way, it is the massive exploitation of employees in our homeland, which compels many Ghanaians of different educational and social backgrounds, to travel abroad for greener pastures. Some readily abandon so-called descent jobs that pay dehumanizing salaries here in Ghana for menial jobs abroad. A very good and intelligent friend, who is very passionate about Ghana, and once worked as a Morning Show Host for a top radio station, said this to me a year ago; “Eben, when you get the opportunity to travel outside even for a few years, grab it and make good use of it before you return. I worked for many years in Ghana and had nothing. Within the few years I came here, I am putting up a house back home from this work and doing several things alongside schooling”. This man is a graduate of the University of Cape Coast.

This is the story of many other Ghanaians abroad whose professions cut across different areas. What is the motivation to stay in your country and be treated like a slave, when you can travel elsewhere and return home to become a master? I love this Akan adage that says ‘When you are ostracized from a place of abode, you don’t consistently endure the shame at that spot when many places exist to seek refuge”.

A friend, who works with a Television station in Accra, is saddened by the story of a security guard at his station who is paid 150 cedis a month. The man, in his sixties, has a wife and children back in Kumasi where he was transferred from by his employer. In Kumasi, he was able to manage that 150 cedis albeit strangely with his family as he guarded his employer’s radio station. While others are transferred with benefits, his employer transfers him to Accra to guard his new business, a TV station, and he pays him the same amount without considering Accra’s cost of living.

No other benefits were added to that amount. As a result, the man is forced to sleep at the TV station’s premises when the day’s work ends. He sends almost all the amount to his family monthly. He practically works 24 hours a day, seven days a week. My friend told me that he’s forced to buy food for this man occasionally. And he was saddened that this elderly man, sometimes practically serves as an errand boy for the young employees just to get favors. Ironically, my friend doesn’t earn much and is not comfortable per his standard of living. He earns 800 cedis monthly and even spends nearly half of that salary on transportation from Lapaz to East Legon.

One would want to ask; does this employer who is revered as a successful entrepreneur and has enough for himself and his family, have conscience at all? If this is not wickedness, what is it? Somebody should give me a better description of such behaviors. Maybe I am being too judgmental. And why won’t the blood of this security guard stain the hands of this employer if he commits suicide out of frustrations and pressure from his family?

Hmmmmm…Although these are but few examples, one cannot belabor the point that there is something about us that makes us want to cheat each other. And this must change if we are to have a cheerful and peaceful society.

I have heard the saying that the only way to true financial freedom is to work for oneself. Others have said that if you want a good salary then you should work for yourself. Has anyone ever thought about what will happen if everyone works for him or herself in this world? It is impossible. It is always a two-way affair. The employee is as important as the employer and must be treated with equal respect.

And the strangeness in all of this is that, the employers today, were the employees of yesterday who lamented similar or worst forms of abuse. But here they are today; passing on the baton of ill-treatment to new employees. The result is that, they are also much more likely to visit this on others in future when the tables turn in their favor.

I must add that, some employers have literally pushed many hardworking people to the wall to either become unproductive or dishonest. Out of frustration and destitution, some choose to steal or do anything dubious just to have extra income to meet up with their responsibilities. And if luck eludes them and they are caught, an employer who doesn’t have a ‘pint of compassion’ in his blood will either dismiss or jail that worker without seeing him or herself a part of the problem. In order to avoid such unpleasant situations, it is better to swallow the bitter pill of leaving such exploitive jobs.

Renowned Evangelist and Founder of Lighthouse Chapel International, Dr. Dag Heward Mills in commenting on poor wages in Ghana in one of his sermons recently, was worried that some workers including Christians had become dishonest because of poor remuneration. He asked “How can a father with three children and a wife survive on 300 cedis a month? And then when you ask them how they are doing they will respond we are managing. In Ghana, everybody is managing. Are we magicians to be managing that amount on food, school fees, clothing, shelter and the likes? It is almost impossible” he stated.

But in all of this, some Ghanaian workers, although in the minority, genuinely get relatively good wages without having to steal or manipulate internal workplace systems. Few also steal regardless of how well they are remunerated. But I have come to realize that, sometimes it is not about the qualification you possess, or much about your competence, but it has a lot do with where you work or who you work for. If the company or that individual employer values human resource very much and has some Godliness in him or herself, you will be treated right even with little effort.

Governments must take these bread and butter issues much more seriously by enforcing existing legislations and promulgating new ones to protect workers’ interest and ensure they are paid dignifying wages. But even before our Governments think of addressing this critical problem holistically and aggressively, individual employers must do serious self-introspection and reflect on this critical human development issue and amend their ways.

If you are in the category of “cheating employers” just because the labour laws are weak or dormant, change your ways and make this world a better place for those whose sweat is giving you that wealth for your unborn generations. And to those employers who dignify their workers and reward hard work and honesty regardless of dormant labour laws, may God reward you for doing his work diligently. For whatsoever a man sows, he shall reap. Do unto others what you want them to do unto you. Who the cap fit, let them wear it.

The Writer Ebenezer Afanyi Dadzie is a Freelance Journalist.
His email is enadadzie@gmail.com