20 March 2012

Ghana: Single Spine Salary Structure - Successes & Setbacks (1)

The Public Service of Ghana is a juggernaut which has to pay about 470,205 employees under a novel and encyclopaedic remuneration system known as the Single Spine Salary Structure (SSSS). The Ghana Universal Salary Structure (GUSS), the predecessor of the SSSS, was instituted in 1997 to address anomalies, disparities, distortions and inequities in the public pay structure.

The GUSS was touted as the first holistic public sector pay reform. Before the GUSS, there existed public pay review commissions and committees such as the Gyampoh Commission (1992-93), the Azu-Crabbe Commission (1979-1983), Issifu Ali Committee (1973) and the Mills-Odoi Committee (1967). Despite repeated attempts to rectify the problematic post-independence public pay system, the efforts of these reform-oriented interim entities could not completely bear the desired fruits.

Since the GUSS did not fully deliver the goods, the New Patriotic Party (NPP) Government requested the then Minister for Public Sector Reforms, Dr Paa Kwesi Nduom, to fashion out a pay policy that will correct the existing relative disparities among public service employees. The result of Dr Nduom's labour was the Single Spine Pay Policy (SSPP), the bearer of the SSSS, which he announced in 2007. The NPP Government was gingerly trying to implement the SSSS when it lost the 2008 elections to the National Democratic Congress (NDC).

On taking the reins of power, the current NDC Government seems to have taken the bull by its horns by issuing a white paper on the SSSS in November 2009. The paper stated that the government would tackle the existing pay disparities within the public service; the rising cost of the public sector wage; the numerous public sector pay negotiations; and the link between pay and productivity.

To facilitate the implementation of the SSSS, public service workers have been categorised into nine organisations, taking job similarities into consideration. Determining factors of this categorisation are education, skills, training and other occupational/career roles. Parliament passed the Fair Wages and Salaries Commission Act which created the Fair Wages and Salaries Commission (FWSC) to administer the 25-level SSSS. One major kind of allowances has been merged into the salary scheme, leaving three more types of allowances. Later, Mr George Smith-Graham was appointed the Chief Executive Officer of the FWSC.

The implementation of the SSSS begun in June 2010 after the NDC Government clinched an agreement with public sector unions to defer the commencement of the policy which was scheduled for 2009. Though the SSSS started in June 2010, the structure was effective in January 2010.

Police: Phenomenal Salary Increase

The Ghana Police Service was among the first public institutions that the FWSC migrated from the GUSS onto the SSSS in 2010. The migration resulted in a phenomenal increase in the salaries of the Police. This created the wrong impression among public service employees that the SSPP was meant to add more money to their meagre salaries. So when the Ghana Prisons Services, Ghana National Association of Teachers (GNAT), National Association of Graduate Teachers (NAGRAT), Civil and Local Government Staff Association, Ghana (CLOGSAG), Ghana Medical Association (GMA) and others received their pay and did not get increment comparable to what the Police took home; they either picketed, demonstrated, threatened to go on strike, or actually embarked on strike actions.

Some junior Prisons Service officers protested the SSSS adjustment in Kumasi. Consequently, the FWSC explained that the pay rise was due to the consolidation of the many allowances enjoyed by the Police. But officials of the FWSC and the Ministry of Finance say some particular workers have enjoyed an upward adjustment of their salaries to the tune of about 78 per cent, while others got 300 per cent, 92 per cent and 71 per cent salary increment.

It is apposite for public sector employees to consider the argument of Paul Osei-Mensah, a one-time General-Secretary of GNAT : "A closer and critical examination and analysis of the objectives of the single spine pay policy will reveal to any discerning analyst that the policy was not intended to bring about pay increase per se. Therefore, if some employees noticed increases in their salaries, the possible reason was that those employees were previously under remunerated, thus they were hitherto being unfairly treated."

Mr Osei-Mensah further contends: "One cannot justifiably expect that a policy which is intended to tackle the rising cost of public sector wage bill will at the same time increase salaries of the public employees. It appears there was not a full understanding of the import of the policy by some employees, hence the eruption of protests and demonstrations among some sections of workers on it."

This not-calm industrial climate compelled the Government and the FWSC to negotiate with the GNAT, NAGRAT, CLOSAG and others to iron out some misunderstandings, mistakes and inequities. As if the agitations by these public service staff were not enough, the GMA expressed their discontent when public health sector employees were migrated onto the SSSS by going on an 'illegal and inhumane' strike.

GMA's Illegal Strike

Truth be told, though the Government and FWSC did not handle the doctors' strike as deftly as expected and desired, some lawyers argue that the GMA's strike was an illegality per the Labour Act, 2003 (Act 651) when a purposive jurisprudential interpretation of the statute is applied. Under the sub-headings "Cooling-off period," "Essential services" and "Prohibition of strike or lockout of essential services," sections 161, 162 and 163 of the Act appear to have banned the strike of the doctors. The said sections are reproduced below for careful and critical study:

"161. (1) A party to an industrial dispute shall not resort to a strike or lockout during the period when negotiation, mediation or arbitration proceedings are in progress.

(2) Any party who contravenes subsection (1) is liable for any damage, loss or injury suffered by any other party to the dispute."

"162. (1) In any industrial dispute that affects workers engaged in an essential service, the parties to the dispute shall endeavour to settle the dispute within three days of the occurrence of the dispute by negotiation.

(2) If after the expiration of three days, the dispute remains unresolved, the parties shall within twenty-four hours of the expiry of the three days, refer the dispute to the Commission [National Labour Commission] for settlement by compulsory arbitration under section 164.

(3) The Commission shall take immediate steps, but not later than three days after the dispute has been referred to it, to settle the dispute by compulsory arbitration under section164.

"163. An employer carrying on, or a worker engaged in, an essential service shall not resort to a lockout or strike in connection with or in furtherance of any industrial dispute involving the workers in the essential service."

On face value, the GMA apparently contravened section 161 (1) because it resorted to a strike when negotiation with the FWSC was ongoing. Section 163 too evidently proscribes strike actions by the doctors who are employees in the "essential service" caveat. Let us consider the interpretation of "essential service" under section 175 of the Act which defines it as: "includes areas in an establishment where an action could result in a particular or total loss of life or pose a danger to public health and safety and such other services as the Minister 'assigned responsibility for Labour' may by legislative instrument determine." The doctors' strike action definitely did "result in a particular or total loss of life" and did "pose a danger to public health and safety." Didn't it? Only a definitive decision by the Superior Courts of Ghana can set a legal precedent on the matter of "essential service" workers embarking, or not embarking, on strikes.

Limping Labour Commission

Is it not instructive that some lawyers and labour relations experts like David Annan and Austin Gamey described the doctors' strike as "unlawful" and "illegal"? Why didn't the National Labour Commission (NLC) declare that the GMA's strike is a blatant violation of section163 of the Labour Act? Was the NLC limping or sleeping?

May be the commission believed such a declaration and legal action would compromise and jeopardise its neutrality, and thereby negatively affect its resolution of the industrial dispute between the FWSC and the GMA. Yet The Saturday Statesman (May 12, 2007) reported that the NLC described a strike action by the Health Workers' Group as illegal, quoting the NLC as having stated that "legitimate rights cannot be pursued with illegitimate means." Should the NLC condone or encourage illegality? Mustn't a spade be called a spade? Fact is that the failure of the NLC to crack the legal whip on the GMA has set a bad precedent for workers of "essential service" organisations like the Volta River Authority, Electricity Company of Ghana and Ghana Water Company. What are the consequences if employees of these "essential service" providers embark on a strike and there are no lights and water for a considerable time?

After negotiations between the GMA and the FWSC broke down and the NLC intervened, the commission asked the disputing parties to go for compulsory arbitration as stipulated under sections 160 and162 of the Act. Reality dawned on the leadership of the doctors and the GMA had to call off its strike, albeit subtly. Expectedly, the GMA was unhappy with the ruling of the arbitration panel of the NLC. "The GMA is, therefore, totally dissatisfied with the award as it fundamentally undermines the scientific and objective basis that underpins the development of an equitable salary structure," declares a statement issued by the GMA.

The troubles with the SSSS still continue; and there are no signs they are going to abate soon. GNAT, NAGRAT, CLOSAG, University Teachers Association (UTAG), civilian employees of the Ministry of Defence, Teachers and Educational Workers Union (TEWU), and lately Polytechnic Teachers Association of Ghana (POTAG) had, and still have, one or more reason(s) to complain about their displeasure with regard to certain aspects, terms, conditions and thorny issues impeding the satisfactory implementation of the SSSS. The Ghana Trades Union Congress (GTUC) also waded into the SSSS implementation blues.

In Daily Graphic of December 24, 2011, the GTUC, via its Secretary-General, Kofi Asamoah, observed that the SSPP had failed to enhance the levels of workers' salaries as expected and asked for a national living wage. The GTUC bemoaned: "a significant proportion of public sector workers are still very dissatisfied with the new pay structure because it has failed to enhance the levels of their salaries." A Ghana News Agency report has it that UTAG members of University of Cape Coast went on strike but UTAG national leaders asked them to call off the action since the FWSC has assured them that they would receive their SSSS arrears by February 29 this year. This was after UTAG National President Dr Anthony Simmons expressed dismay at the delay in the payment of the SSSS arrears.

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