Driving along the highway that leads to Tema, the coastal town 30 miles south of Ghana’s capital, the odor of diesel, emitted by countless trucks, is overwhelming. Construction cranes, fishing boats, and freight ships, along with numerous men in neon orange work vests, are among the first hints of the Chinese-funded port project taking place there.
Besides the pungent fumes and the sound of construction, nothing seems amiss. It is not unlike a scene one may find at construction sites across the globe. But the humdrum belies the months of turmoil that befell workers for months this year.
On the face of it, workers’ rights and employment issues in Ghana have taken a positive turn in the past year. In 2016, after a workers’ strike, the government raised the minimum wage for government employees by 10%. When President Nana Addo Kuffour took office in January, he had a strong plan for private sector job creation and rural development, and many of his plans involve billion dollar Chinese investments and partnerships. With the advent of Chinese industrial projects across the West African nation, employment opportunities for Ghanaians have flourished.
One project- a $1.5 billion expansion of a port in southern Ghana, partly funded by a private Chinese company- will be the largest port in West Africa when it is complete. Approximately 5,000 Ghanaians work on the port in Tema.
But work on the port has been far from the ideal employment opportunity that many of the workers envisioned. Port workers in Tema complained of unfair treatment, citing offenses from hazardous work conditions to unreasonable commutes, and protested for three months this year. The demands were met with brutality and very little progress. The plight of these workers raises the question of whether new opportunities in infrastructure, largely funded by private Chinese companies, really result in better lives for the people.
James Kingsley, a 23 year old former port worker who lives in Tema, said he wanted the job because he thought that at $45 a month, it paid better than other jobs he’d had. But soon he realized that with the rising cost of living in Ghana, he was struggling just to make ends meet. He was also worried about injuries on the job which could result in medical care that he could not afford.
According to the workers, Chinese employees at the harbor are shuttled to work every day on a company-provided bus; they receive health benefits and paid vacation time. On the other hand, Ghanaians make long commutes on tro-tros (public mini-buses filled to capacity) and work in hazardous conditions with no health insurance.
Opoku Emmanuel, an excavation operator, who has been on the project for two months, described the strike-locally known as a “tools down-” that happened in June as an unavoidable response to the company’s unfair treatment. When he received less pay than the $45 per month he was promised, Emmanuel thought he simply misunderstood the terms of his pay. But when he realized that he and other workers were employed by a third party, they demanded the wages they were promised and stated that they wanted to be employed by the “parent” company, not a third party subsidiary.
The port workers thought they were employed by The China Harbour Engineering Company, the project’s prime contractor, but then they realized that they were, in fact, employed by Meridian Port Services, a subcontractor that handles daily management.
Matthieu Ferraro, the Construction Manager of the project who works for Meridian Port Services, declined to comment.
In June, the workers held a strike after three demonstrations that took place in March, May, and June. To be employed by the main contractor was the first of their demands. They were told that when they received their next payment, it would be from The China Harbour Engineering Company. Two weeks later, the workers claimed to have received less than the promised amount and that the money was still from Meridian Port Services. They decided to organize a strike.
The strike ended with police releasing tear gas and shooting rubber bullets, which hit one worker in the eye, potentially blinding him. Several other workers jumped a wall fleeing further brutality.
“We came and we asked, ‘Is it proper? Is it in the Ghanaian Constitution that if a worker does not understand something about his work, that police should come to come and [harm him]?,’” said Kaa Kakali Mensah, a worker who has been on the project since March.
The port expansion is one of several multi-billion dollar Chinese funded infrastructure projects in Africa. Though the port expansion is also funded by the Ghanaian government, just earlier this year, China loaned Ghana $18 billion. Other Chinese funded projects include new railway systems in Nigeria, Kenya, and Ethiopia; a port in Tanzania; and residential real estate in South Africa.
The port expansion will completely transform the Ghanaian harbor in Tema. It will allow the port to accommodate larger vessels, which carry greater capacities of freight.
“Ghana will be recognized as a maritime hub and the most efficient one-stop port services centre in the West Africa region and Africa as a whole,” said Richard Anamoo, Director-General of the Ghana Ports and Harbours Authority, speaking to Construction Review Online.
Shortly after the June strike produced no results, James Kingsley decided to quit.
“We will have nothing to show for this work. A port will be there, but we don’t make enough to money to ever show our children,” he said.
After the workers returned to work, they showed anyone who would look, a photo of a worker who is only known by the name “Captain.” The photo had been circulating among the workers and shared countless times in Whatsapp messages. In it, “Captain” stares at the camera, showing his eye bleeding profusely from being hit by a rubber bullet at the strike in June.
In July, Joseph Tetei, a worker who claimed to have kept the rubber bullet which hit Captain’s eye, came to work and was surprised to find that his name needed to be on a list of authorized employees before he would be allowed to work. If a worker’s name was not on the list, it meant the workers was fired. Though the names on the list seem to be random and have no correlation with those who participated in protests, he never knows if each day will be his last.
By August, all protesting had stopped. A new batch of employees, along with some of the same workers who protested in previous months, arrived for work. They picked up tools, positioned themselves behind the wheels of excavators, bulldozers, and cranes, and had strategy meetings. Nothing had changed and the protests were a distant memory.. The port is well on its way to completion.