The "Working in Ghana" Project

Construction Laborer

[Two years ago Mr. Alanyo gave up farming in northern Ghana and migrated to Accra. He is thirty years old, and has a four-year-old child in the north. He works as a general laborer with a private building construction firm in Accra. Philip Awekeya conducted the interview partly in the Gurune language and partly in English; they sat under a tree near the living quarters of Mr. Alanyo's cousin, with whom he lives.]

I did not have the chance to attend school in my youth. Besides, what matters to my employer is the strength of my muscles and my good health. I thank God I am endowed with these, as you can see for yourself. No one can doubt my ability to do the work I am engaged in, even when he sees me for the first time.

I got my present job through the cousin whom I am staying with here in Accra. My cousin is a drinking mate of my boss. They sometimes drink beer together. Through conversation, my cousin learned that the head of my boss's firm needed some general laborers. My cousin told him that there was a young man staying with him--me--who was ready to take up general laborer employment. My cousin was assured that I would be engaged provided I looked healthy and physically strong.

The next morning, which was a Monday, my cousin took me to my present employer's office. The boss, being satisfied with my physical appearance, took me on.

As a general laborer in a construction firm, my duties are varied. Sometimes I am called upon by the foreman to take charge of mixing mortar and dishing it out into head pans for fellow laborers to carry to the masons on building projects. Sometimes I dig trenches for laying building foundations or help clear away shrubs at new building sites. I may also carry mortar myself, in addition to mixing it, but I do that only when the labor force is reduced by my boss in hard times, that is, when he is not paid by the organization or the central government for completed building projects. Then he is forced to lay off some of his laborers until he is paid.

Like most workers in Ghana, I work eight hours per day. I report for work at eight in the morning, break for about one hour in the afternoon and close at five o'clock in the evening. Only the two watchmen go on shift; they alternate day and night work each week.

As a general laborer, my tools include the pickax, the shovel, the head pan, and the wheelbarrow.

I am expected to work "like a man", that is, to work without showing signs of being tired and above all not complaining about the heat of the sun. I am supposed to appear cheerful before my foreman when I am assigned a new job for each given day. By so doing, I ensure that he will always recommend me to be retained when my employer is in financial difficulties and needs to reduce the size of the labor force. My work output is above average, as shown by the fact that none of the layoffs that have taken place in the past two years has included me.

I feel sad that I am not engaged to work on contractual terms. We work mostly in the hot sun either digging, carrying or mixing mortar, throughout each day of the week except Saturdays and Sundays without any form of security. We can be sacked (fired) at will or terminated without prior warning or compensation. This simply means that my continuous stay on this job depends on how I am able to weave myself into the good books of the foreman. But even then, the length of time I stay on this job does not lead to any end-of-service benefits, such as my fellow laborers at the Ghana Electricity Corporation or Ghana Water and Sewerage Corporation enjoy. When I consider that fellow laborers elsewhere are more secure than I am and that they earn more than the six hundred cedis (then about $1.20) per day that I receive, I feel dissatisfied. But then I just have to continue on the job till I am able to change work.

I have so far established a cordial working relationship with my foreman. I have for the past two years observed that he wants "painful respect." In other words, hypocritical respect. In this way he feels happy. He does not want open challenges to his instructions and above all he dislikes signs of lack of cheerfulness when he assigns your new job for a given day.

My fellow laborers like my company and usually feel my absence whenever something unusual happens, for instance, when I am ill and fail to report for work. I normally crack jokes while we are working or having our short noon break. There has so far not been any occasion that I have picked a bone with any of my co-workers. As a matter of fact I am loved by almost all my fellows; they show their love whenever I fall ill by paying me visits at my cousin's residence.

Though most workers in Ghana--no matter their level of education--belong to unions and committees, there is no chance for me to belong to any form of union because my employer is not happy to hear about or see us attending union meetings. He sees such organizations as a threat to his business interests. He often openly tells us that any worker who wants to join any form of workers union can do so, but he must remember that after that, the worker will have to find a job elsewhere. Several times he told us that union leaders encourage workers to request shorter hours and higher wages so that union members can pay higher union dues to maintain them in their offices. I feel sad that I am not given the chance to join a workers' union to protect my interests in terms of better pay and job security. I pray for the day that I shall find a job that will grant me the chance to belong to a workers' union.

The less we talk about work benefits, the better. I do strenuous work in the heat of the sun for just six hundred cedis a day. With the high cost of living I find it tough making ends meet. Except for my cousin, whose wife supports me at night by providing my evening meal, I would either have stopped this work and returned to the north, or died of hunger.

Besides the low wages, I have no leave allowance or medical benefit. This is quite disheartening because workers in certain other firms and corporations not only have higher wages than I do, they also enjoy annual leave allowances that enable them travel to their home towns. And they also get medical expenses refunded whenever they go to a hospital or approved clinics.

Transport and accommodation benefits are not in the head of my employer. He is only interested in our reporting for work--not where we stay or how we come to work. I am thankful to my dear cousin who offers me one of his bedrooms for the time being because there is no one staying in it right now. I would have smelled pepper (suffered) if he was not in Accra or had no accommodation. As for going to work I do it most of the time on foot making use of bush paths.

I seldom dream of being promoted to the rank of foreman in this job because the person with that rank comes from the same home town as the managing director, and he is about my age. I therefore do not foresee how in this my present job I could ever be promoted to foreman, the only senior rank open to illiterate workers like me.

My parents feel that I am wasting my time here in Accra doing work which can not support me adequately, much less allow me to remit them some money from time to time. They realize that the six hundred cedis a day is too small to keep me alive and wonder how I would have managed to stay two years in Accra on that wage if my cousin were not in good business and thus able to offer me support in terms of free accommodation and meals at night and weekends.

In the eyes of the rural community where I come from, I am simply a young man who hates holding the hoe, hence my stay in Accra. They cannot understand why I should run down to Accra to do work which does not earn enough money to enable me send some to my old man so he can engage some farm laborers to weed his farm during the rainy season. To some people, the earlier I return to help my old man on his farms the better for me. If I do so, he will assist me to marry, rather than watch me labor to help strangers become rich in a far away city.

I feel disappointed that I have traveled down here to Accra and still not succeeded in getting a job which will bring me enough money to buy good clothes and possibly a bicycle to return home with to show to my people my success in a foreign land. My only prayer now is that I come by a well-paid job in any of the big corporations like Volta Aluminum Company or Construction Pioneers--a place where I would earn sufficient money to buy fashionable clothes and a bicycle so as to return comfortably to the north without the guilt of failure.

I feel that one should be prepared to take up any job and do it properly to earn a living, at least for a brief period, until such time that he is able to find a job that suits his taste. There is no point doing any job half-heartedly. Any job that one is engaged in should be carried out with zeal while praying for an opening in the field of work one is interested in. This idea keeps me working hard on my present job. Otherwise I would have quit long ago.