In Ghana fewer than 10 per cent of workers belong to a trade union. While the minimum wage has almost doubled since 2008, at 4.48 Ghana cedis per day, or about $2.54, it remains low by international standards.
Many workers—especially the large number of farmers in the rural regions—don’t even make the minimum wage because 90 per cent of the country’s workforce is informal.
But if you ask Yaw Baah, the deputy secretary general of the Ghana Trades Union Congress, the West African nation has a good union environment. It only needs more workers to be part of the fold.
“Since 1992 things have changed for everyone,” says Baah, referring to the year Ghana enacted its current constitution. “We have the freedom to outreach. In some countries union members get killed because they try to negotiate a good deal for their members. It doesn’t happen in Ghana.”
It is in that environment that the Health Services Workers’ Union (HSWU), winner of Public Services International’s Public Service (PSI) Trade Union Award 2011, has managed to make solid gains in the areas of migration, salaries and retirement benefits. PSI is a global trade union federation that brings together 650 unions in 148 countries.
“It’s an exemplary union with stable leadership,” says David Dorkenoo, PSI regional secretary for Africa. “Other unions are actually learning from them.”
The HSWU represents about 16,500 paramedics and support staff who work in Ghana’s government hospitals. Workers in the country’s Christian and Muslim hospitals also fall under the union’s umbrella.
The union was founded in 1966 after the government at the time dissolved the Health and General Hospital Workers Union, which encompassed all of Ghana’s health workers.
“[The union was] so strong that the government could not withstand the demands of the workers,” says Abu Kuntulo, the HSWU’s general secretary.
The doctors, nurses and paramedics each split up forming their own associations.
In recent years the HSWU has worked with other public sector unions in Ghana, including the nurses and doctors, to improve the country’s single spine salary structure for public service employees. The new salary structure, first instituted in 2010, normalizes salaries based on a person’s qualifications. A paramedic with five years experience in the northern city of Tamale, for instance, makes the same as a colleague with the same qualifications in the capital of Accra.
When the single spine salary structure was first introduced it had a lot of kinks to work out.
“As of now no one can actually say that he is satisfied [with the pay structure],” says Daniel York, the HSWU’s industrial relations officer for the Greater Accra Region. York says a lot of the problems come down to a lack of clarity. “At the moment nobody can actually tell you this is my salary at the end of the month,” he says.
The single spine salary structure has 25 pay scales. Through negotiations with the government the HSWU was able to ensure that all of its members would not start lower than the fifth level.
Ghana’s public sector workers were able to negotiate for an overall increase of 18 per cent to the new pay structure in 2010. In 2011 that amount was increased by an additional 20 per cent and they have achieved another 18 per cent increase in 2012.
“The reason we have managed to obtain all these increases is because we negotiate as one body,” says Baah. “That has given us some strength that we could not imagine.”
Baah says one of his friends, who has been a teacher for 18 years, was able to save money for the first time in 2011. He falls under the single spine salary structure.
With representation across Ghana, the HSWU has had to face a fair number of challenges. Kuntulo says the union’s biggest challenge at the moment is reaching workers who may be apathetic or misinformed about the union’s work.
Caroline Boateng, a HSWU member who works in registration at the Civil Service Polyclinic in Accra, says she does not see much from the union apart from the monthly deductions to her paycheque from union dues. “I’ve paid the money and I’ve not benefited.”
But Boateng says the switch to the single spine salary structure has been better than what she received before. “But it should be best,” she says.
Kuntulo says he and his team are working on improving communication at all levels. “We need effective communication, not at the national level, not at the regional level, but at the branch level,” he says.
Baah says that Ghana’s unionized workers, who work in the formal sector, generally have a better quality of life than people who work in the informal sector. Most union members, for example, make more than the country’s minimum wage.
For Kuntulo, winning PSI’s Public Service Trade Union Award just means the HSWU has more work to do to live up to its international reputation. He says the key to that success is teamwork and hard work. “We have sleepless nights,” he says.