The "Working in Ghana" Project

Gold Mine Machine Operator

[Mr. Abban, age 30, works in the gold mines near Obuasi in south-central Ghana. He lives with his wife and three small children. He has completed the Advanced Level, General Certificate of Education. He took up work in the mines three years ago. Stephen Obiri-Yeboah conversed with Mr. Abban in the sitting room of his well-furnished house.]

I come from a village near Obuasi. I have relatives working in the top management ranks of the mining corporation. When I was working at another business I mentioned to them my desire to work with the corporation. They assured me that if there were a vacancy in accounting, my area of training, they would inform me. After some time, I was told that the corporation was employing underground workers. My desire would not allow me to wait for an opening in the accounting section, so I wrote an application through one of my town mates who worked toward my employment after my interview.

Qualifications for workers in the mines vary according to what they do. Previously, laborers were employed without any required formal qualification. But now the minimum is the middle school leaving certificate. Other work requires more training. Operation of some machines and other delicate duties requires degree holders from the School of Mines at the University of Science and Technology in Kumasi. The work of security personnel may demand experience in security services such as the police or the military. For some managerial jobs, the corporation either employs engineers with a higher degree or it sponsors employees to acquire the necessary skills through training outside the country.

The underground workers fall into two categories: those who do supportive services and those who do the real mining. The supportive services include electricians who make sure that the electrical system functions perfectly, as well as surveyors, engineers, machine drivers, mechanics, and general laborers. Some machines are so large that they have to be dismantled before being taken underground by elevator. They are put back together in the mine. This is done by mechanics, who also repair broken machines. And some support workers pump out water that comes into the mine.

A machine driver is a rank above laborer. The next rank is foreman, which is the peak of the junior workers' ranks. We do the ventilation underground, the pumping of water outside, and arranging of props to support the roof to avoid its collapsing.

The direct mining workers include those who use dynamite to blast the ore out of the rock. The air after blasting is so poisonous that any worker who inhaled it would die instantly. Some workers treat the blasted air before the ore is removed. Then workers scoop the ore and convey it through the shaft to the washing room on the surface.

I work from Mondays to Fridays and in some cases on Saturdays. Every shift is eight hours.

The machinery I work with includes the pumping machines, steam controlled shovels, as well as several other pieces of equipment. The machines are of international standard, though there may be some slight differences. Wood logs are used as props to support the roof. The blasting is done with dynamite.

Mining is full of hazards. As I said, the air after blasting is so poisonous that an encounter with it would result in an instant death. When the air is not fully treated, one breath of it would result in tuberculosis. I have heard that about half of the mining workers have developed tuberculosis. I am not even sure whether I am affected (laughs).

There have been instances where the roof has collapsed on workers, killing some of them and causing severe injuries to the rest. The machines also may fall on workers in the course of their operation, and sever some of their limbs, rendering them disabled.

Any sudden interruption of the electrical services results in loss of life. We depend on electricity for our lighting systems, although the direct miners have lamps, and for the water pumps, the shaft elevator, and the ventilation system. These machines will not work if electricity is interrupted. That would lead to loss of life and severe injuries.

We are also away from our families, which brings about discomforts. But in spite of this, we still like the job and therefore keep recommending it to loved ones.

We move around and work happily with each other. There is however a genuine discipline in the job. We treasure the job so much that it is very unusual for a worker to disobey his supervisor or a senior worker. Most supervisors treat us as part of their family, though there are a few of them who are very difficult and strict. The people of the surrounding towns and in Obuasi itself treat the miners well. Our traditional leaders, the chiefs, protect the workers because as production increases, they get greater royalties.

There is a strong association which all the mining workers in Obuasi belong to. The Association of Mines has done a lot to unify us. We also use the association as a channel to present our grievances to the management. The association is so influential that any request is peacefully granted. It, therefore, becomes almost impossible to hear that Obuasi gold mine workers have gone on strike to demand better conditions. Even though the pay is not all that appreciated, it is better than most of the workers in the country. We are paid relatively well to avoid the temptation of smuggling.

We are also entitled to 28 working days annual leave and 7 working days casual leave. But the work is such that in most cases we are compelled to work for money during leave periods, which we appreciate. All registered family members, that is, the wife and children and the worker himself, are entitled to free medical care. The corporation has a well-equipped hospital where we go when sick.

The workers are also entitled to other fringe benefits. There are numerous overtime jobs, which are lucrative. Another benefit is study leave. The corporation sponsors some workers to study in the universities in Ghana as well as outside the country to acquire diverse skills. They receive free books and other incentives. As I am talking to you now, I have qualified to further my education the University of Science and Technology next year.

Some of the workers have been offered accommodation at the corporation's quarters. Those who provide their own means of accommodation are well provided for. The corporation has good schools for our children. The schools are well supplied and have qualified teachers. The rate of promotion among the workers is also encouraging. I was initially employed as a laborer but after three years, I attained the rank of machine driver.

The work has improved my social life. I have a key position in my extended family. Most issues are not discussed in my absence. My immediate family also has benefited a lot. They all enjoy the proceeds from the job. However, my absence from the house most of the time diminishes their joy. My wife is almost always left in the house with the children.

I enjoy my job so much that I often go to town in my uniform. People travel from the countryside just to see the Obuasi mines, which are some of the richest gold mines in the world. I am proud to be a worker in the corporation. I got my wife because of the work. People really respect us. Some even think that we get gold and become rich overnight. To them, we are financially well off.

When students come on excursions, they ask us about the whole underground process and even ask for our addresses. This shows that we are really treasures in Ghanaian society. Sometimes people see the corporation's logo on our uniforms and call us "sikama," which means "money children." People from all parts of the country come to Obuasi to seek employment, which tells me that I am blessed to be in the system with the position of a machine driver.

However, we are exploited when we go out to buy things. The sellers charge large amounts for their goods because they think that we have money, but that is an exaggeration. Our families and other relatives think that money is nothing to us. They ask us to support their budgets. If we are not able to settle their expenses for them, that creates bad impressions and tension within the family. Last year, a relative brought his school fees bill of 25,000 cedis (then, about $50) for the term. And he demanded 40,000 cedis (about $80) for other items. This represents almost all I am paid in a month. There was, therefore, a misunderstanding when I sent 40,000 cedis instead of the 65,000 cedis demanded. Being a worker for the corporation puts an extra load on us in terms of finance.