Development Discourse with Amos Safo: Economics and politics of the illegal ‘COLA’ strike

pre-tertiary education

Against all expectations, teachers and educational workers’ unions comprising the Ghana National Association of Teachers (GNAT), Graduate Teachers Association of Ghana (NAGRAT) and Concerned Teachers Association (CTA) have embarked on an illegal industrial action in demand of the ‘Cost of Living Adjustment’ (COLA).

The demand for COLA comes at the time our economy is facing serious financial and economic challenges, after barely recovering from the impact of COVID-19 in 2021. It comes at a time when government is negotiating with the IMF for financial support to resuscitate the economy.  As if on cue, the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war has exacerbated the economic situation – though some political elements would like Ghanaians to believe that COVID 19 and Russia-Ukraine war has nothing to do with the current economic and financial situation. The IMF has indicated that the world economy will grow at a negative rate in 2022 and beyond, due to the Russia-Ukraine war. Hence, it is irrational for teachers and other workers to be demanding COLA now.

Imported inflation 

Conventionally, a cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) constitutes demands for an increase in wages, salaries or benefits to counteract inflation, which is measured using the Consumer Price Index (CPI). In many contexts, the CPI is usually based on an objective measure that estimates how much additional money a typical person or household needs to maintain their standard of living over time. But in Ghana, determining the CPI has often been controversial and inexplicable.

For instance, it is unclear why grapes and apples which are not produced in Ghana would be included in the CPI rather than the mangoes and oranges produced in Ghana. Eating grapes and apples is a matter of choice for those who can afford for them. To some analysts, it is inexcusable for these foreign products to be used in determining the rate of inflation – based on which some workers are demanding COLA. This amounts to importing inflation to compound our economic woes.

Both globally and locally, the cost for goods and services – including vital ones such as food, shelter and medical care – continues to rise.  This means there should be a corresponding rise in income, otherwise many people will not be able to afford the cost of living over time. Admittedly, while the future is unpredictable, teachers and other workers planning to embark on similar strikes must weigh all options while considering the overall impact of their demands on society and the economy. We should not be selfish and opportunistic to the point of endangering our economy for no reason other than exploiting an unfortunate financial and economic crisis. The question to the teacher unions is: if inflation comes down, will they accept a decrease in salaries?

In fact, all Ghanaians are to blame for the current rate of inflation. Suddenly, prices of local foods have skyrocketed largely due to our obsession to make abnormal profits, taking advantage of a situation that is more global than local. A few days ago, while in traffic I signalled a lady selling cooked groundnuts to sell some to me. I pulled out a one-cedi note, and she quickly told me she wasn’t selling one cedi. I asked her to give me two cedis, which she obliged.

I asked her if she divided the quantity of the two cedis into two, couldn’t she have sold half for one cedi? It was then she realised her decision not to sell at one cedi was unrealistic. From her attitude, it can be discerned that some food vendors merely increase prices based on public discourse over an issue.  In all, it is our unpatriotic culture of taking advantage in every situation that is more to blame than just the current global turbulence.

Timing of strike

The strike comes at the time the World Bank and other development partners are challenging African governments to invest more in public schools to promote inclusive and equitable basic education. The World Bank’s advice comes against the backdrop of a decline in the quality of public education delivery – especially in the rural areas, to which some teachers refuse postings. The 1987 Education Reforms did a grave injustice to rural areas when private basic schools were licenced without a complementary investment in public schools.

The net result is a decline of reading and numeracy skills in rural schools across the country. What’s more, it is inexplicable that private schools with less qualified teachers continue to perform better than public schools with all the qualified, trained teachers. If private school performance should be the standard, certainly the taxpayer is not getting value for money. In many rural areas, some of the few teachers who accept postings frequently fail to attend classes – further compounding the plight of rural children.

Teacher absenteeism

Compassion International Ghana – a United States-based Christian Child Development Organisation – recently partnered with some evangelical churches in the Sawla-Tuna-Kalba district to provide holistic child development for poor and needy children. Compassion’s model of holistic development in part involves providing literacy and educational support to children registered on the project. Sadly, in a community like Kokrompe near Sawla the primary school lacks a full complement of teachers. The two teachers assigned the school are mostly absent, leaving the children at most times with no instructional lessons and hours. If the situation does not change, these children may never make it to Junior let alone Senior High School.

In fact, the entire Sawla-Tuna-Kalba district has not been doing well in basic education examination results due poor facilities and teacher absenteeism. Yet these absentee teachers are embarking on a COLA strike to demand what they obviously do not deserve. As things stand now at Kokrompe, Compassion’s implementing partner – the Church of Pentecost Child Development Centre – will have to invest more time and resources in providing literacy support if the children of Kokrompe are not to be excluded from the gains of basic education.

For the record, teachers and other educational workers were among the key interest groups that hugely benefitted from government’s social and economic interventions during COVID-19. Apart from benefitting from water and electricity subsidies, public sector teachers (those currently on strike) received one year’s uninterrupted salary when public schools were closed. At the same time, their private sector counterparts received no salaries at all as proprietors of private schools had no money – which is normally derived from school fees to pay salaries. To date, some private schools and their teachers are yet to fully recover from effects of the lockdown. Therefore, the current strike and demands for COLA is a slap in the face of taxpayers whose toil is used to pay public sector teachers. So far as government has not failed to pay their salaries, the strike is an illegal action.

Teaching as a service

While not undervaluing their contribution to social and economic development, teachers must note that the education sector is a services sector, not a productive one. This means that it takes productive sectors like industry, manufacturing, agriculture etc. to generate income for teachers to be paid. At the moment industry and manufacturing are barely recovering from the impact of COVID-19, and marginally driving economic resuscitation. Where do teachers expect government to obtain the extra money for their COLA? Undoubtedly, if doctors and nurses, pharmacists, laboratory technicians, engineers, police, armed forces etc. begin to make similar demands the economy will crash. While they may have a case, as do other wage earners, the cumulative effect of demands from all public sector workers for COLA will collapse the economy.

Perhaps the teachers’ action, ill-timed as it is, is fitting a certain narrative of trying to make the country ungovernable. If teachers think they are the only important workforce in Ghana, they should wait till waste-collectors fail to collect waste for one week. As indicated earlier, while the cost of living is biting all Ghanaians, teachers should not use the current economic difficulty to blackmail Ghanaians.

Their action is not hurting the politicians whose children are in private schools, it is the children of ordinary Ghanaians who are the unfortunate victims. The demand for 20 percent COLA is not only unrealistic but also outrageous. In the medium-term, the Ministry of Education and Ghana Education Service should consider deploying NABCO and National Service personnel to some of the most deprived schools in rural communities if teachers fail to return to classrooms.

Partisan politics

It appears the teacher unions are exploiting the current economic difficulties to settle scores with government over the Free Senior Secondary School policy. Many teachers, especially those belonging to NAGRAT, have openly expressed their opposition to the Free SHS policy. Fee-paying SHS was probably a goldmine for many teachers, so Free SHS amounted to taking food out of their mouths. The average teacher should read between the lines. When in the past new teachers worked for three years and were paid the equivalent of three months, their current leaders did not declare a strike. Where was Angel Cabono when teachers were denied remuneration for two years nine months of their sweat? Today, he is pretending to be a voice for NAGRAT. I stand to be corrected, but – judging from Angel Cabono’s posture – one can read politics fuelling the illegal strike.

The issue I have with teachers and educational workers’ unions is that since 1992 their strikes have been ill-timed, mostly embarked on at times the economy was in difficulty and when students were preparing for examinations. Their industrial actions often led to conclusions and accusations of unions’ leadership pandering to the dictates of politicians. The current illegal strike is a clear affirmation of the notion that there is political manipulation of the teacher unions’ leadership. There are indications that leadership of the unions may be mortgaging the concerns of teachers for political and personal gain.

Of all the teacher unions, my biggest issue is with the leadership of GNAT. As the oldest teachers’ union, I always expect the leaders of GNAT to handle wage demands and strikes with maturity so that they can maintain the goodwill of many Ghanaians.  They should be displaying exemplary leadership for leaders of other unions to follow.

Collective bargaining

In my opinion our economy is not financially stable enough to afford a COLA that matches current inflation, considering the current global economic meltdown. In the interim, all Ghanaians should bear with government and work collectively to help the economy rebound.  In future, COLA should be built into collective bargaining agreements (CBA) if it not so currently done. Also, future budgets should make provision for COLA and clearly indicate where the money for it will come from – such as increases in the rate of VAT, E-levy, property rates, petroleum prices, income tax etc.

These steps should be undertaken to cover the cost of increases ranging from union-mandated raises for salaries, and generic inflationary forces for other direct costs. All said, government should be proactive in addressing organised labour’s requests for negotiation. The manner in which the UTAG dispute was handled is still fresh in our minds.


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