Universally throughout history, trade unions have struggled for protection and improvement of real incomes, security of tenure at the workplace, safe and healthy working environments for their members.
Trade unions in Africa are no exception in the pursuit of these aims. Trade Unions in Africa have played very important roles in the continent’s political, social and economic development.
African countries joined the International Labour Organisation (ILO) immediately after independence, and in countries such as Ghana more than 70% of all ratified ILO conventions were made in the first decade after independence.
However, since the 1980s and the 1990s, the labour movement in Africa has been faced with several difficult challenges in their effort to protect workers’ rights and rights of the weak, the poor and vulnerable in society.
The level of enthusiasm and loyalty from existing union members is also diminishing. Most of the declining membership has been accompanied by the decreasing influence of unions over decisions which affect their members and workers in general, either at enterprise or national level.
Union finances have also diminished as membership plummeted, making it increasingly difficult for unions to offer tangible services and benefits to their members. It’s believed that implementation of the IMF/World Bank-sponsored Structural Adjustment Policies and their successor policies including Poverty Reduction Strategies Policies (PRSP) is the immediate cause of the membership decline.
The large-scale privatisation of State-Owned Enterprises (SOEs) together with retrenchment of large swathes of the public sector workforce cut union membership by half in many countries. The unions have never recovered from that existential shock.
Sadly, the private sector – which was expected to be the ‘engine of growth’ and a source of employment for those who lost their jobs in the public sector and new entrants into the labour market – could not live up to expectations.
Above all, the political environment has significantly been altered in the past three decades; making it difficult for unions to operate, protect and improve the living conditions of workers and their families.
National laws have and are being reformed in a manner that protects capital and profit over the rights of not only workers but also communities. All these mean that trade unions are not getting enough for workers through the collective bargaining process.
In-work poverty is rising, as workers and their families struggle to survive even as profits soar. The low earnings and in-work poverty is not confined to the informal economy. Significant numbers of workers in the formal economy working full-time do not earn enough, either. In Ghana, nearly one in ten workers in the public service is classified as poor (GSS, 2008).
Organising workers in the then Gold Coast (now Ghana) started in an ad hoc manner during the early to mid-1900s. In 1919, employees of the Public Works Department and mineworkers on separate occasions protested against the delay of their wages’ payment.
Domestic workers and teachers also organised themselves to fight for their interests. However, in 1945 fourteen (14) trade unions formed the Trade Union Congress (TUC) of the Gold Coast. The TUC enjoyed a cordial relationship with the first government of Ghana, headed by Dr. Kwame Nkrumah.
The TUC however suffered a setback after the overthrow of the first government in 1966. In 1971, the TUC was dissolved by passage of the Industrial Relations (Amendment) Act. It was restored in 1972 by the second coup-maker, General I. K. Acheampong – who overthrew the Second Republic.
In 1981, the PNDC government ushered in workers’ militancy groups as a result of government’s call to clean their organisations of corrupt and inefficient leaders. Examples of these worker committees included Workers’ Defence Committees (WDCs), Peoples Defence Committees (PDCs) and the Association of Local Unions (ALUs); and in April 1982, the ALU took over leadership of the TUC.
Calm was restored ten months later when the TUC elected its leadership democratically. The TUC remains the largest trade union federation and mouthpiece of organised labour in Ghana.
The Labour Act No 651 of 2003 consolidates and updates the various pieces of former legislation, and introduces provisions to reflect ratified ILO Conventions. The Labour Act covers all employers and employees, except those in strategic positions such as the Armed Forces, Police Service, Prisons Service and the Security Intelligence Agencies.
Major provisions of the Labour Act include establishment of public and private employment centres, protection of the employment relationship, general conditions of employment, employment of persons with disabilities, employment of young persons, employment of women, fair and unfair termination of employment, protection of remuneration, temporary and casual employees, unions, employers’ organisations and collective agreements, strikes, establishment of a National Tripartite Committee, forced labour, occupational health and safety, labour inspection and establishment of the National Labour Commission.
The Ministry of Employment and Labour Relations is the Executive body responsible for the formulation and implementation of labour laws, policies, regulations and conventions of industrial relations, as well as the monitoring and evaluation of such policies and programmes.
The trade union movement in Ghana has fought for its independence and worker rights for well over fifty years, and has enjoyed the norm of internal democracy since its emergence after World War II.