Tuesday, 3 January 2017

Here is not my home. The story of a migrant construction worker in Ghana

by Collins Yeboah

In Ghana, both skilled and unskilled migrant workers seek greener pastures in the highly concentrated city of Accra and its sprawling peri-urban areas. Most of these migrants end up working in the informal and insecure sectors as domestic and construction workers.

Usually, the migrant construction workers are practicing craftsmen – masons, carpenters, and steel benders. A study by Yaro et al (2015) indicates that migrants skilled in construction work spend years perfecting their trade at home before migrating, due mainly to the surplus of crafts persons in their originating communities.

Why do construction workers leave?

“There are jobs in the Volta Region for masons like me, but they are not too many - it is the big construction firms that get all the contracts and pay us the masons as they want”. 

These are the words of Divine, a 23-year-old mason from Tsitsito, in the North Tongu district in the Volta Region of Ghana. Divine migrated to Accra because of poor salaries and low frequency of jobs in the Volta region.

Our Migrating out of Poverty global qualitative study in Ghana* found that the livelihood options in origin areas, though diverse, are of limited benefits to the emerging youth. The towns and peri-urban areas have limited construction projects mainly provided by the state, the Ghanaian diaspora and residents. It was also found that the non-farm sector has blossomed but with limited profit margins due to poor purchasing power and low populations. Farming is an important activity in both Northern and Volta Regions of Ghana but one whose significance is decreasing due to dwindling land sizes in peri-urban areas, falling soil fertility, soil erosion, and rising input cost. Petty trading is therefore the norm in the origin areas, especially for women.

Given the above local origin context, rural-urban migration for skilled work is encouraged by the entire household. The study further found higher wages in Accra are a major attraction for migrants. Also, the waiting time for moving between contract jobs is shorter in Accra. Added to this is the fact that the desire for housing - as reflected in the aspiration of the middle classes desire to own houses - drives the demand for the services of construction workers. Global processes of industrialization, modernization, and urbanization also provide the opportunities and conditions for migration.

Our study found that the migration of skilled workers is encouraged by the entire household as it holds promise for moving them out of poverty. Like many migrants, Divine reported that his family members consented to his migration and gave him their blessings. He self-financed his migration from his savings as a mason in Tsitsito and thus doesn’t have any debts to repay:

“I financed my migration from Tsitsito to Accra. I do not owe anyone in my village. I have a purpose, to make enough money and go back so I can start my own business…” 

Others use loans from family members and friends to finance their relocation.

Conditions in the migrant construction sector

Migrants seek jobs wherever they perceive jobs are possible. Where there is an opening, an offer is made with conditions advantageous to the employer. There is little job security in the sector and few people have formal contracts. Arrangements are usually agreed verbally. Our study found that masons in the construction industry earn between Ghc 30-40 a day. Workers are only paid for days worked - an indication of the extent of casualisation in the industry. They are not provided with sick pay, except in cases where a worker falls ill on the job and cannot continue for the rest of his/her hours that day. But they are not paid for any subsequent days off.

Construction workers tend to labour throughout the week from 7:30 to 17:00, with one day off on a Sunday. The six-day work regime is used across all categories of construction work and there are high levels of flexibility for the non-formalised sector where the rule is fulfilling one’s contract rather than the time used. A mason in Accra is expected to lay 100 blocks a day or plaster two walls a day. A good worker is capable of achieving this task in 5 hours (also called ‘finish and go’). As Divine puts it:

“I can lay more than 100 blocks a day. Masa, when you start, there is no rest for you. You see the difficulty involved? It is a work for the strong not the weak” 

Despite the challenges that he faces in the city Divine still holds the idea to save enough and go back to Tsitsito. The intention to stay in Accra permanently, or acquire assets in Accra, is not part of Divine’s plan. He considers himself a ‘hustler’ and therefore sees Accra as a temporal place, a survivalist strategy to save money and return home:

“I did not come here to spend heavily on food. No way! I have plans to save enough of what I earn so I can go back to Volta region and establish my own work. Here is not my home”. 

Yaro, J. A, Awumbila, M & Teye, J.K (2015). The life struggles and successes of the migrant construction worker in Accra, Ghana. Ghana Journal of Geography Vol. 7(2), 2015, pages 113-131

*GP011 MOOP study- See one of our journal articles based on this study: Social Networks, Migration Trajectories and Livelihood Strategies of Migrant Domestic and Construction Workers in Accra, Ghana

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