ACCRA - The Ghanaian labor front has been boisterous lately, with thousands of workers marching to protest the poor economy and demand better living conditions.
Five separate demonstrations were organized against Ghana's government in July alone. The largest, organized by the Trades Union Congress, brought thousands of marchers into the streets of all 10 regional capitals. More protests are planned.
A major catalyst for the labor unrest has been the falling value of the local currency. Over the past year, the cedi has lost more than 30 percent of its value against the U.S. dollar, sparking a significant rise in the cost of living.
In "this country, we have a very weak productive base,” one worker said during a recent protest. “If you have a weak productive base and your currency depreciates that fast … it just escalates prices of goods and services.”
Ghana is reaping increased revenue from offshore oil fields that went into production in 2010. But about 50 percent of the country’s budget still comes from donor partners. Those partners have withheld money for two years because of government overspending.
Domestic sources have become the only source of revenue, creating a shortfall that must be supplemented by borrowing.
Government workers’ wages frozen
To control the national debt, Ghana’s government recently had to freeze public-sector wages and impose new taxes on items such as telephones.
Richard Ampaabeng, general secretary of the public services workers union, summed up workers’ concerns.
"Our issue has to do with the currency,” Ampaabeng said. “… If the cedi continues to behave the way it is going, I am afraid we don't have future. Employment, as you know, is dwindling. Salaries are also dwindling."
The economic downturn is affecting others outside of government, too. Some private steel-producing companies operating in Temam, for example, have threatened to shut down over incremental hikes in utility prices, which have pushed up production costs.
"Most of our workers are being made redundant because government is not paying for infrastructural development,” said Pious Quainoo, general secretary of the Construction Building Materials Workers Union. “Most factories are closing down.
“We want government to listen to workers,” he said. “We want government to make a change."
Demonstrators are asking government to act to halt the economy’s decline. They’ve petitioned the government to reverse the currency’s depreciation, revamp the railway sector and curb the costs of petroleum and other living expenses.
Trim government jobs?
One way of ending the protests is for government to cut down on public-service employment, said Ghanaian labor consultant Austin Gamey. The government spends an estimated almost 70 percent of tax revenue on salaries alone.
"In an age of rapidly changing technologies … we may not need too many hands doing the same thing,” Gamey said. He added that “human resource management policies and procedures must be properly oiled to be in tandem with the labor laws."
Meanwhile, Ghana's finance minister, Seth Terkper, rejects claims that the economy is in crisis. He said the challenges facing the country have been blown out of proportion.