31 May 2013

Ghana: All SSSs Strikes Are Illegal... Declare National Labour Commission

Many in the public sector anticipated the Single Spine Salary Structure (SSSS) and its eventual implementation, because they believed it was definitely to improve upon their salaries.

However, three years into the implementation of the Single Spine Pay Policy (SSPP), there have been much agitations and foul cry over some forms of distortions or irregularities in one way or the other, notably from the health and education sectors.

These agitations have mainly been in the form of strike actions, ranging between a few days to about a month, and there have been a total of forty of such strike actions. Twenty-two of them have been by public service workers, and they relate to the implementation of the SSPP.

According to the National Labour Commission (NLC), all these strikes were illegal, because they did not follow laid down rules and regulations. These rules provide that first the parties intending to embark on strike have to give notice of their intention to the NLC and the employers concerned within seven days after failure of the parties involved to refer the dispute to voluntary arbitration or termination of voluntary arbitration.

Also, a strike may only be commenced after seven days of giving of the said notice, and when the strike begins, it can only subsist for seven days. After that date, the dispute, if it still exists, shall be settled by Compulsory Arbitration within fourteen days after the commencement of arbitration.

These problems arising from the implementation of the SSPP, as explained by many experts at various fora, have been largely due to a lack of proper understanding of the SSPP, among others.

The APPI

The Africa Public Policy Institute (APPI) is a non-profit and public policy organisation that is also independent, non-partisan and a policy research think-tank.

The organisation is committed to supporting sustained improvement in public affairs through scientific research and knowledge exchange, starting from Ghana, and seeking to impact on Africa generally, among others.

The APPI organised its maiden Policy Review Series (PRS) in Accra on Wednesday, to enable stakeholders review in detail the SSPP, under the theme, "Public Sector Pay Policy: A Review of the Single Spine Salary Structure."

The Executive Director of the APPI, Professor Mike Oquaye, in his opening address, said the PRS is to provide a platform for the public to review, discuss and assess specific public policies and programmes from time to time.

He observed that following the implementation of the SSPP, several labour groups had either embarked or threatened to embark on strike actions, because of wage bill discrepancies.

He lamented: "Our problem with the single spine is that most people do not understand what it is, yet it is supposed to affect most people."

In view of this, he said the APPI deemed it appropriate to bring together stakeholders to review, discuss and assess the basic principles and structures underlying the SSSS and its implementation, and believed that the input of discussants "will go a long way to address the issues surrounding the implementation of the SSPP."

Previous public pay sector reforms

A Labour Economist and Senior Lecturer at the Department of Economics, University of Ghana, Dr. William Baah Boateng, said that workers ought to understand that people receive different wages, or similar jobs in different locations are paid differently for various reasons.

These include institutional models of wage settings such as efficiency wage and trades union models, while there is also an internal labour market approach, based on transaction cost or job evaluation, upon which the SSPP is based.

Some previous public sector pay reforms he mentioned were the Mills Odoi's Commission, 1967, Issifu Ali's Committee, 1973, Azu Crabbe Commission, and the Ghana Universal Salary Structure 1996, among others.

According to him, most of the reforms failed to consider the cost implications for the national budget, and therefore, stalled implementation, and they either failed to correct the existing distortions, or in some cases, created further distortions. There was also no legal backing for these reforms to prevent some worker organisations from opting out.

An overview of the SSPP

Dr. Boateng said the objectives of the SSPS include; placing all public sector employees on one vertical structure, ensure that jobs within the same job value range are paid within the same pay range, and allow the government the ability to manage the wage bill more efficiently.

Additionally, it was to ensure compliance and ease of monitoring the pay structures of self-accounting institutions, minimise industrial relations tensions related to low pay and distortions across the public service and link pay to productivity.

The major elements of the SSPP, as he mentioned, are that the policy is based on a reward for the job, and not who the individual is, legal backing for pay administration, as per the promulgation of the Fair Wages and Salaries Commission (FWSC) Act, 2007 (Act 737).

Others were to categorise allowances in the public service in four distinct types, with a proposal to harmonise and standardise them, and a market premium to attract and retain critical skills in short supply, and deployment of public servants to deprived areas.

According to him, the market premium is determined by the employer and "not negotiable", but was now creating a problem, because of the interim measures put in place during the migration of workers onto the new scheme.

He said the solution could be to expand the spine and put everyone on it, which would require research and deep thinking, or rename the premium as something else.

Touching on job evaluation of the SSPS, he said it was carried out to determine the value of all public service jobs, establish internal relativities across and within service classifications with the object of enabling the government to reward its employees in accordance with the principle of "equal pay for work of equal value", and provide the basis to begin placing public service jobs onto the SSSS.

General observations

The labour expert believed, as do many, that a major problem bedeviling the implementation of the SSPP was limited education and understanding of the subject, and high expectation of workers created by politicians and political activists, saying, "they did not allow the technical people do their work."

He said there was "hasty" implementation of the policy, with limited time for new commissioners of the FWSC, appointed in 2009 to settle, a "piecemeal" migration of different worker groups, undermined the quest to removing distortions and ensuring equity, and "no strong research unit to support effective implementation was put in place."

Furthermore, he pointed out that a comprehensive assessment by the Commission on different public sector jobs was not done, a comprehensive wage survey and measurement of productivity to guide the Commission was also missing.

He added that "baggage" from the old salary structure and interim market premium compromised the real meaning of market premium, and suspicion and some element of mistrust on the part of labour for the Commission did not help.

In spite of the problems, he said the SSSS was an improvement upon previous public pay reforms, but also required fine tuning, and disagreed that the scheme should be scrapped.

He called for a comprehensive education for workers to appreciate that the policy was about the job and not the individual, and strengthen the FWSC with the provision of a strong research unit. Also, politicians must not interfere in the work of the FWSC, he ended.

Views of the NLC

The Acting Executive Secretary of the NLC, Mrs. Bernice Welbeck, noted that the employee associations that had mainly embarked on strike actions include the National Association of Graduate Teachers (NAGRAT), Ghana National Association of Teachers (GNAT), Polytechnic Teachers' Association of Ghana (POTAG), University Teachers' Association of Ghana (UTAG), Coalition of Concerned Teachers (CCT), and Ghana Association of University Administrators (GAUA).

Other groups are the Ghana Medical Association (GMA), Government Hospitals Pharmacists' Association (GHOSPA), Ghana Association of Bio Medical Laboratory Scientists, Junior Nurses, Workers of National Health Insurance Authority (NHIA) and Medical Consultants at the Komfo Anokye Teaching Hospital (KATH).

She said the reasons for the strike actions included poor conditions of service, dispute over total package under the SSSS, unpaid SSSS arrears, placement of Medical Superintendents and District Directors of Health on the SSSS, SSSS grade placement and payment of market premium, and market premium arrears and payment of conversion difference.

Other reasons are disagreement over the SSSS placement, payment of allowances, payment of market premium (outstanding for 2012), unpaid vehicle maintenance allowance, promotions and annual incremental jumps.

Mrs. Welbeck said the fact that "the continuing strikes come mostly from the education and health sectors suggest that greater attention is needed in those areas."

The government should review its approach to industrial disputes in these sectors, and seek the help of seasoned industrial relations experts in this regard.

According to her, effective negotiation skills are needed by the various unions and the FWSC, and "each side should reduce emotions; the union as well as government may need good negotiators who must exercise good faith during negotiations, and respect for each side is most essential."

Key issues arising out of the disputes

She emphasised the lack of proper education, saying, "The principle underlying the introduction of the SSSS is to allow for equity in pay in the public service. For some reason, there is the impression that it is about salary increases, and so where workers are migrated and they remain on the same salary or even attract conversion difference, they begin to agitate."

In her view, perhaps, the government, and for that matter the FWSC, should have adequately sensitised workers even before their migration, and used the opportunity to explain to them when they were to be paid conversion difference.

She noted that such education should have been held on a case-to-case basis, preferably, sector-by-sector before migration, adding, "May be, it is not too late to embark on such an education, since the policy is under implementation, and is still at its early stages."

Also, she mentioned lack of information and poor records keeping in that in some instances, there have been disagreements over understanding reached between the parties during negotiations before migration.

"Unfortunately, in almost all cases, the parties have failed to produce documentary proof, in terms of records or minutes to the effect that such agreements have been reached, which led to certain decisions being taken, over which a dispute has arisen," she lamented.

Another problem is bad faith at negotiations, because parties held on to entrenched positions without justifying why they can't change or review their positions. The effect is that "such an attitude unduly delayed the negotiation process, and eventually led to a deadlock or threat of strike, or even strike."

Poor communication and lack of commitment to the negotiation process also constitutes a problem, because in many instances, a letter written by one party to the other party is never acknowledged or left untreated, even after several reminders.

This, therefore, agitates the workers, who eventually decide to withdraw their services without going through due process, because, in their view, "strike is the only language that the employer understands."

She explained that under such circumstances, negotiations are held under duress, and ad hoc measures and decisions made, "which cannot stand the test of time, in terms of implementation, because such decisions are made in haste."

She said, often times, such decisions are made by officials without seeking the necessary commitment or mandate from the Ministry of Finance and Economic Planning as to the issue of "sustainability" and "ability to pay". In such circumstances, "an uninformed public and the agitated workers then blame the NLC for its inability to bite."

Mrs. Welbeck urged the government to consider engaging the services of industrial relations experts, in addition to training its human resource directors in proper industrial relations management. These persons will then advise the various ministries department and agencies (MDAs), and also provide technical expertise to the FWSC in time of negotiations or deadlock, and may also join the team of representatives to meet the NLC in times of adjudication.

She said this was important, because "as soon as a dispute gets to arbitration, then it leaves the realm of negotiations and goes into the legal regime, where adversarial route is embarked upon, thus evidence adduced is what will be used to make a decision or determination in the matter."

On the use of Memorandum of Understandings (MoUs), she said a resort to an MoU is improper, because Act 651 does not recognise MoUs, while Section 96 of the Act clearly describes which document should contain the terms and conditions of employment of workers.

"The use of MoUs in place of CAs, should be discouraged, because in industrial relations, and as provided in the Labour Act, 2003 (Act 651), MoUs are not recognised as the way to govern the relationship," she stressed.

The NLC's role

The Ag. Executive Secretary noted that the NLC, as an adjudicator, has no direct role in the negotiations held between the parties in the employment relationship at the enterprise level.

"The NLC's role in negotiations only comes into play when the parties fail to agree at negotiations, or one party does not complete the processes and declares a dispute or deadlock. In such situations, the NLC orders the defaulting party to conclude the laid-down processes at the enterprise level."

"The NLC is an arbiter in industrial disputes, and not a negotiator," she emphasised, and added that "the NLC intervenes only when there is a dispute, and its intervention is sought by the parties, whether jointly or individually."

If a strike is lawful, as per the route mapped by Act 651, appealing to the defaulting employer to accept its defeat in contest is the most appropriate role to play, she stated. However, if the employer belongs to the Ghana Employers' Association (GEA), in the case of the private sector, a peer review mechanism may be explored.

She said in the public service, where the strike is illegal, the NLC may be proactive by inviting the union leadership and the FWSC to a meeting to facilitate the resolution of the industrial action.

The second intervention is where the NLC plays a mediatory role by facilitating settlement through mediation, and negotiation is conducted with the assistance of a "third party neutral" to help the parties reach an agreement.

"We concede that the NLC has a vital role to play in the settlement of industrial disputes. Its independence and ability to give unpalatable decisions should not be compromised, if fair," she said, and assured all stakeholders that the NLC was "ready, capable and willing to assist them to settle their grievances and disputes, if its intervention is sought."

She appealed to employers and employees to commit themselves to ensuring peaceful and harmonious industrial relations environments, and use the settled procedures for settling their disputes.

Also, parties aggrieved by the decisions of the NLC must seek redress from the courts, while "participants in industrial relations have a duty to obey the laws that govern industrial relations in the county, to ensure industrial harmony to promote rapid economic development," she concluded.

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