Sam Sophal is a full-time RCAF soldier, but you would have a tough time ever catching him in military fatigues.
Lounging by his tuk-tuk in the park across from Phnom Penh’s Naga Casino on Sunday, the 33-year-old trooper and father of two was doing what he does most days: looking for passengers.
“It’s impossible for me to make enough to survive without my tuk-tuk,” he said, explaining why he was on duty as a taxi driver in the park and not at his military base.
“My boss also has pity,” he said. “We just show our faces three times a week to sign the work attendance sheet.”
Earlier this month, Prime Minister Hun Sen said the Council of Ministers would sign a decree giving the country’s estimated 167,000 civil servants a 15-percent salary increase beginning Jan 1.
Impressive as the double-digit pay raise may sound, it will hardly be noticed by government employees such as Sam Sophal who shirk their official jobs—but not their salaries—and have turned to the private sector to make ends meet.
Earning a monthly salary of approximately $25 as a soldier, Sam Sophal said an extra 15 percent, or $3.75, is far short of the minimum $100 per month he would need to give up moonlighting with his tuk-tuk.
Phuong Sovann, a nurse working for the Ministry of Health, said the extra 15 percent would not even cover the cost of gasoline used in the trip to and from work.
“This is just propaganda to show people that the government doesn’t ignore the civil servants,” he said.
Fed up with his paltry salary, Phuong Sovann said that he does not spend much time working at a state-run hospital in Phnom Penh, which is supposed to treat the poor for free.
Though he would prefer to actually do the nursing job the state pays him for each month, Phuong Sovann said instead he has opened his own small medical clinic and earns on average $7.50 a day treating patients privately.
“If I had enough salary, I would focus on helping the poor at the state hospital,” he added.
Civil servants can expect to see their salaries increase by 15 percent annually until at least 2008, said Ngo Hongly, secretary-general of the Council for Administrative Reform at the Council of Ministers.
And though the increase is specifically aimed at the 167,000 civilian government workers, police and military salaries—for an estimated 160,000 on the government’s payroll—tend to follow those of civil servants, Ngo Hongly said.
When allowances are factored in, most civil servants now take home an average of $45 a month, Ngo Hongly said.
In the countryside, $45 is enough for government workers, but this is insufficient for living in Phnom Penh, he said.
Raising civil servants, police and soldiers’ salaries to, say, $100 a month, however, just isn’t feasible, he said, and would cost the government over $390 million annually—well over half of the revenue the government currently takes in each year.
A flawed tax collection policy has meant that the government has not been able to take full advantage of the consistent growth in the GDP, Ngo Hongly added.
“If we can improve the revenue collection then we can improve the salary level,” he said.
Side by side with improved tax collection, culling the state’s many “ghost employees” could—and should—be used to pay civil servants at least $100 per month, SRP lawmaker Son Chhay said.
“If we look at the actual number of [civil servants] working full time, it’d be no more than two thirds of the current number,” he said.
“Many of them just sit in a room smoking for an hour and then go home.”