The Multinational Monitor



Worker Takeovers Shake Rawlings Government

by Nick van Hear

On December 31, 1981, a military coup in Ghana led by Flight Lieutenant Jerry John Rawlings overthrew the civilian government of President Hilla Limann, replacing it with the Provisional National Defense Council or PNDC (see MM, February 1982). Promoting a "people's government," the new regime began a program of political decentralization and economic development designed to "transform the social and economic order" of this west African nation of 12 million, increase Ghana's control over foreign investment, and diminish the power of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) over its economy.

The PNDC quickly gained a large following among the rural and urban population of Ghana, and the coup was followed by a wave of worker militancy throughout the country.

One of the most dramatic forms of the new militancy has been a series of factory occupations. Angered by widespread layoffs, poor working conditions, and inadequate compensation for the unemployed, worker committees have occupied plants and taken over management functions in a number of industries. These actions have affected the operations of several multinational corporations.

But there are signs that the wave of working class activity in Ghana may be spent. In the last year and a half, the Ghanaian economy has been battered by the expulsion of thousands of Ghanaian "aliens" from Nigeria, food shortages brought about by drought and bush fires, and general economic dislocations resulting from the world-wide recession. By the end of 1982, Ghana's outstanding foreign debts totalled $1.4 billion. The economic problems have led the Rawlings government to adopt a policy of "pragmatism" and ask the IMF and western banks for emergency aid. In the process, the government has backed away from its embrace of labor militancy. Leftists criticizing its moves have been branded "ultraleft" and attacked by the PNDC for "destabilizing the revolution." Rawlings himself has ridiculed some worker demands as "populist nonsense."

Workers Takeover

The worker takeovers began in late 1982, when several hundred employees were laid off from two textile companies partially owned by the London-based United Africa Company (UAC), an affiliate of the British-Dutch multinational Unilever. Though the companies said the layoffs were due to a lack of raw materials, management turned down a worker demand to remedy that shortage by redeploying laid off workers in cotton farming, in accordance with a little enforced government directive requiring companies to seek re-employment for laid off workers in raw materials production.

In response to the companies' refusal, workers seized two of the UAC-owned plants. Interim Management Committees were established, consisting of members of the Workers Defense Committees-set up by the government in most work places in 1982-the unions, and some sympathetic managers. The new committees demanded an end to the Unilever-UAC involvement in the firms, and asked the government to buy out the multinationals' shares. While the government has not acted on the worker's demands, at the end of 1983 the factories were still under control of the workers-and running at a profit.

Not all workers at the plants supported the occupations, which were accompanied by serious fighting with local police. Nevertheless, the actions, and charges raised by support groups that the company, like other multinationals, was suppressing production of cotton in Ghana in order to import cotton from Unilever subsidiaries in other countries, gained public support for the Unilever workers.

Given the history of the company, the charges are quite plausible. UAC handles most of Unilever's Third World operations. During the colonial period it controlled the trade in tropical vegetable oils and peanuts, and progressively incorporated many of the trading companies in West Africa. Its interests now include plantations, timber, foods, motor assembly, textiles, technical sales, office equipment, cement, printing, insurance, and shipping in French and English speaking East and West Africa.

The worker takeover at UAC became a major episode in the political upheaval of late 1982, and sparked a number of similar actions, many in foreign controlled firms.

In June 1983, workers at Allied Foods, Ltd., a subsidiary of the British multinational Cadbury-Schweppes, occupied their factory to protest layoffs. The pattern was similar to the Unilever events: management claimed that shortages of raw materials forced layoffs, then refused demands that workers be redeployed in local sugar and malt production.

The workers, who saw the management action as an attempt to sack militants and to break their Workers Defense Committee, stated they had not taken the company over, but had merely occupied the plant to force management's hand. After a series of meetings set up by Secretary of Labor Ato Austin-at which Allied Foods management declined to appear-and the convening of a committee to resolve the issue, 120 laid off workers were reinstated and the occupation ended.

Although never occupied by workers, the Volta Aluminum Company (VALCO), which is owned by U.S. giants Kaiser Aluminum and Reynolds Metals, provoked controversy after 625 workers were laid off from its hydro-power and smelter complex in 1982. A company plan to provide some compensation by loaning workers the cash to buy imported equipment for farming or fishing failed, however, since most of the equipment was too expensive for most workers to afford.

Further shutdowns were made as the continuing drought lowered the level of Volta Lake, which feeds the dam supplying electricity to the aluminum plant. VALCO ordered leaves of absence for another 900 of its remaining 1,520 workforce; those kept on would be redeployed in community work projects, the company said.

All this took place amid talks between VALCO and the government about renegotiation of the agreement made with Ghana in 1962. The agreement, which was widely seen as overly favorable to VALCO, guaranteed the company very cheap electricity (the major cost in smelting aluminum) and other substantial benefits. Talks began in February 1983, broke down in May and then resumed in January 1984 against the background of a total smelter shutdown and power blackouts throughout the country as the Volta Lake reached its lowest level ever and electricity generation almost ceased.

The Government's Dilemma

The Rawlings government has taken an ambiguous stand toward worker occupations. On the one hand, to maintain its popularity among workers as a "people's democracy," the government has continued its rhetorical support for worker rights and commitment to social justice.

After the Cadbury occupation, the government endorsed implementation of a 1972 Ministry of Labor directive requiring consultation between management, workers, and the ministry over layoffs. The directive, which had been ignored by business and the government until then, gives the three parties joint input into decisions on layoffs. Proposals are to be put to a National Manpower Utilization Committee, chaired by the Minister of Labor, for approval. Rather than outright layoffs, workers are to be redeployed into

A worker takeover at a Unilever subsidiary sparked a number of similar actions, many in foreign-controlled firms.

production of raw materials. Companies are also warned against selling off raw materials and plants as a pretext to run down operations and lay off workers. In one recent sign of support for workers, the PNDC government intervened on behalf of workers in a dispute with a French multinational (see box).

On the other hand, the government has been reluctant to formally endorse worker takeovers. And as Ghana's economic problems have mounted, the tone of rhetoric has shifted markedly.

Such ambivalence has resulted from government anxiety over the continuing deterioration of the economy. The Four Year Recovery Program launched late in 1982 by Finance and Economic Planning Secretary Kwesi Botchway was radicalsounding, introducing a state monopoly of import-export trade and greater state control of banking and insurance. But overall economic policy drifted from this platform as talks with the World Bank and IMF over bailing Ghana out of its debt troubles proceeded in 1983.

An April 1983 budget introduced a "disguised" currency devaluation in the form of a two-tier exchange rate for imports and exports. Very large price increases resulted, but were then eclipsed by drastic increases following a massive devaluation in October and the removal of oil subsidies. After long negotiations with the Ghana Trades Union Congress, wages were increased modestly and there was talk of tax rebates for workers. But the increments were nowhere near commensurate with the increased cost of living; just before Chrismas 1983 rice increased fourfold in price and maize increased fivefold. At the beginning of 1984 the Trades Union Congress began to press for a twelve fold increase in the minimum wage.

In tune with the drift of economic policy, there has been a change in the tone of government speeches and, pronouncements. Rather than supporting workers and the Worker Defense Councils, these groups have been harangued for poor productivity and lack of discipline and commitment. "We must not get into the way of thinking that revolutionary activities are substitutes for productive work," Rawlings said in an August 1983 speech. "Productive work and political involvements must go hand in hand." He also warned that "the responsibility for any lapse, any lack of urgency, and any omission of duty will be traced to the individual concerned."

As part of this policy, the government has emphasized government directed redeployment of labor through a National Mobilization Program launched in mid-1983, and criticized the public sector for overstaffing.

PNDC policy now seems geared to avoid upsetting foreign investors and particularly to gain credibility with the international donor agencies.

"A revolution that does not make compromises in the face of objective conditions is a blind revolution," Government Finance Secretary Botchway recently commented in defense of the government's policy. Earlier, justifying the government's overtures to the World Bank, he argued that it was naive and unrealistic to think that the request for Bank assistance meant a sell-out of the revolution.

This new pragmatism appears to have paid off: at a November donors' conference of Ghana's major private and public creditors held in Paris, agreement was reached with the World Bank and the IMF, and $150 million was pledged to help Ghana meet its external commitments for 1984 on its $1.4 billion debt.

But such success may be at the expense of the popular support which has sustained the PNDC to date. Gone is the confidence of late 1982 that workers' power was a major item on the government agenda. It remains to be seen to what degree workers will influence the debate about Ghana's future.

Nick Van Hear is a freelance writer based in London specialising in African labor issues.

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