The "Working in Ghana" Project

University Residence Hall Porter/
Local Union Secretary

[Mr. Adongo has worked in the same men's university residence hall in the Accra area since 1970. He has been a cleaner, bar attendant, coupon seller, and in now is assistant head porter. He also serves as secretary of the local branch of the University Workers Union. A man in his early forties, Mr. Adongo has three children, all living at with him in staff housing of the university. He holds the General Certificate of Education, Ordinary Level (roughly equivalent to a high school degree). Philip Awekeya spoke with him in both the English and Gurune languages.]

I normally report for duty by signing in at the head porter's office in the main hall. After signing the duty roster, I report at my place of work, which might be in the main hall or in one of the annex halls. There I take over from the porter on duty. I cross-check with him the number of students on admission at the hospital and the number that are away. I also examine the first aid box to find out the quantity of stock left.

In my job I attend to students' needs by giving first aid to those who fall ill, and taking those whose cases are serious to the University Hospital. I also receive students' keys and place them safely in the proper pigeon holes. I also receive reports from students concerning sanitation, water and other problems that affect their welfare, and forward such reports to the head porter for action from the bursar's office. I also do take charge of security of the hall by stopping strangers from entry, except upon satisfactory explanation.

Besides my normal routine duties, I also serve as secretary to all unionized workers of the university non-teaching staff. As secretary of the University Workers Union, which is a subsidiary of the Teachers and Educational Workers Union of Ghana, I write out minutes of the union meetings and also receive and keep records of correspondence. I arrange and organize union meetings as well. Workers' rallies and seminars serve to educate the union members of their rights and responsibilities and to inform them about results of meetings between union leaders and the employers on matters of pay or conditions of service.

As a porter I deal directly with the future leaders of this country who are presently studying in this university. I believe that some of them will in the future render useful service to my children, who now are still very young.

I also enjoy my extra duty as union secretary. Though this extra duty pays only a sitting allowance of two hundred cedis (then about forty cents) , it gives me the opportunity to learn union organization, and makes it possible for me also to acquire leadership skills such as diplomacy, oratory, and patience. Above all, it makes it easier for me to meet some of the top government officials such as the Minister for Labor and Employment and other important dignitaries.

These benefits come at great cost, however. The secretary's job needs to be taken on as full time. It takes much of my time running around to organize union meetings and workers rallies. I sometimes feel like dropping it and only sticking to my official job as a porter. Most union members seldom attend meetings to make suggestions that could help find solutions to their grievances about wages and conditions of service. It is annoying to hear remarks such as "our union leaders are chopping (spending) our money, yet they fail to fight for better pay and good working conditions for us." The workers want the old system whereby leave, transport and accommodation allowances were paid separately instead of combined into a consolidated salary structure. Most of these people forget that some of us are doing the union work on sacrificial basis. They also forget that the government, our employer, has its hands tied by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. It cannot do much under its present weak financial position to satisfy all workers. Most workers approach me only when they have problems with their salaries or when threatened with dismissal. Otherwise they will seldom attend union meetings. Such lukewarm attitudes keeps many people from being interested in taking up a union executive post.

Some people question whether we porters really have problems in our work place. But in fact, we are faced with multiple problems ranging from mosquito-infested offices to lack of basic amenities that would make us comfortable in the exercise of our duties. For instance, we go on shift from seven in the morning to seven in the evening. We do more than the normal eight hours work in a day, and in contrast to workers in the public and civil service who have official breaks, we do not enjoy break periods.

At night when I am on duty I face not only the ugly music of mosquitoes but also their painful bites from which I develop malaria. No mosquito sprays are provided to enable me eliminate the mosquitoes in my office. I am not happy about the way the authorities are overlooking our welfare by not listening to our complaints about the need for mosquito sprays in the porters' lodge. And university authorities ignore our request for uniforms. Official uniforms would help to distinguish us from students and thus keep us safe whenever there is police or army invasion in the residence halls resulting from student demonstrations or riots. I am disturbed that this reasonable request is has not had a prompt response from university authorities.

In spite of these few problems, I am able to perform my duties quite satisfactorily. My supervisor, the head porter, has not had a single occasion to query me either on poor performance or on absenteeism. In fact, he likes me as much as if I were a blood relative. The simple reason is that I attend to my duties promptly, and while on duty I am still able to combine my official work with union activities effectively. I also accord him respect as a boss by listening first to his instructions and when I have a different opinion I make a polite suggestion which normally touches his ear. He therefore sees me as a humble, intelligent subordinate.

I think I am among the best workers of this hall in terms of good human relationships. Quite a number of former students who have left university write letters to me and some even send me presents. A typical example is the pair of shoes that I am wearing.

Unlike the civil service or teaching service, in this job there are no real opportunities for promotion. One can work as Porter, Grade II for donkey years (many years) without promotion. In theory, one qualifies for promotion after every five years in a given grade. However this is mere "paper talk." There are no refresher or in-service courses for porters in order to raise our performance or broaden our knowledge. Once a porter, always a porter. There are only very slim chances of rising, except through one's personal initiative by way of writing the General Certificate of Education Examination (Ordinary or Advanced Level). Then one could enter the university or go into other tertiary institutions for professional training, such as teacher training college or the Institute of Professional Studies.

Some people think I get a very big salary since I work as porter in the university and also serve as union secretary. They are not aware that university workers' pay is not as high as what workers receive with Ghana National Petroleum Company or Ghana Cement Works. Many people also don't know that the union work I do is purely sacrificial. Though the pay and working conditions are poor in the university, I still like working here because it gives me the chance to do private studies by contacting some of the students and lecturers for private tutoring. If I left this job, I might get good pay but I would lose the opportunity of furthering my education through the use of the university library and other facilities. I stay at this work because I can upgrade my academic credentials and because of the joy I derive from being union secretary.

My family, especially my wife, is happy that I am working in the university and that I am involved with union activities. She likes it that union members come to the house to greet me or discuss problems relating to their pay or suspension from work. However, she sometimes complains that the work takes much of my time away from the family, especially when I have three days' continuous night duty or when I return home late from union meetings.

On the whole I do not regret so much being a porter or getting involved in union affairs. Both activities help expose me to people of all walks of life. I believe strongly that some of the students I interact with will in the future be in good positions and render help to my children to either enter institutions of higher learning or get good jobs in the public service. My involvement in union activities enables me to learn leadership skills which I hope will be of great benefit to me when I finally get back home to become a chief in my village in northern Ghana. It is not material gains that men should look for in their work place but how best they can serve humanity with humility and zeal. To me a good name is what men should aim at achieving when they are working, and not how much they take home at the end of each month.