For almost two decades, Huot Pheng, 41, has worked for the Ministry of Education. As vice chief of the ministry’s procurement department, he receives $30 per month, the average salary for civil servants in Cambodia.
“It’s really very little,” he said. “We devote our lives to the government, but the government does not think about us.”
Though Huot Pheng works at the ministry eight hours a day, five days a week, his real source of income comes from his side-job as a private English teacher. In only a single hour of teaching, he can earn up to $50—more than an entire month at the ministry.
Huot Pheng, who used to be a math professor, speaks English fluently, has a degree from the Faculty of Law, and also worked for Untac. He hopes his resume may someday land him a job with a foreign embassy or an NGO, someplace where he can earn enough money to finally buy a house for his family or pay for medicine when he falls ill.
Asked why he hasn’t already left his ministry job for more lucrative employment, Huot Pheng smiled.
“In the future, I hope our country will have a change,” he said.
As Funcinpec and the CPP squabble over the formation of a new government, the issue of raising civil servant salaries has become a major sticking point in their negotiations.
Funcinpec has proposed to incrementally increase civil servant salaries to a minimum of $100 per month before the end of 2007.
The CPP has rejected the proposal, saying the government can’t afford it.
And whether or not a 300
percent raise can improve civil servants’ productivity and reduce corruption remains to be seen.
In January 2003, Cambodia’s judges and court directors received a boost in pay from about $20 to between $330 and $640.
But, some say the raise has done little to eliminate corruption in the courts, as proponents of the wage increase claimed it would.
“I think it’s still the same,” said Suon Visal, chief technical advocate of the Cambodia Defenders Project, a local NGO that offers legal assistance to the poor.
“There’s no mechanism to control misconduct” of court officials, Suon Visal said. The only difference is that corrupt officials now get more money.
“The salary [increase] is not helpful,” he said.
Most civil servants interviewed last week said they supported Funcinpec’s proposal to raise their pay.
“Everyone wants more money,” said Has Hak, a 38-year-old municipal traffic police officer.
A police officer since 1989, Has Hak brings home about $22.50 a month. But that’s after money for his uniform, shoes and other expenses has been deducted from his paycheck. Making $100 a month still might not be enough for him and his family to live comfortably, but it would be an improvement, he said.
From his post on Norodom Boulevard, Has Hak makes extra cash by pulling over traffic violators. For each 10,000 riel fine he hands up to his superiors, he is allowed to keep a 3,000 riel commission, he said.
“I cannot live on such little money from the government,” he said.
In fact, without the extra cash he makes through fines, Has Hak’s monthly salary is less than those of the motorbike taxi drivers and cyclo drivers in Phnom Penh.
Ouk Ren, a 26-year-old motodop, said he can make up to $50 a month, while Khem Puon, a 42-year-old cyclo driver, said he can earn around $25 per month.
But, Has Hak said he’s unlikely to give up his job with the police.
“It’s difficult to get a new job because we have no other skill and I’m also lazy to look [for a different line of work] because I’m used to this job, and I will devote my life to this job until I die,” he said.
Koy Im, a dispute resolution lawyer at the Ministry of Commerce, said he also hopes for a raise.
“If Funcinpec claims $100, I am happy,” he said.
Earning $30 per month, Koy Im said he, too, relies on a second job to supplement his income. As a private lawyer, he said he can earn $100 or $200 per month.
But keeping his job at the ministry can have its perks, he said.
“One day in the future, I hope there will be reform and I will get more money and a better position,” he said.