The government is forming an inter-ministerial committee to investigate changes to the salaries of Cambodia’s tens of thousands of state employees, whose low pay is widely blamed for pervasive corruption and poor public services.
In a directive signed on November 13, Prime Minister Hun Sen orders five ministries to form a Working Group on Salary System Reform within 15 days, a deadline that ends Thursday.
“The main role and duty of this working group on salary system reform is to conduct a study of the government’s salary system as a package, covering the national and sub-national civil servants, military, national police, retirees and professional disabled people,” the directive states.
The working group, the directive adds, “will submit a request for salary system reforms as a package as well as policies and strategies for implementing the plan…from 2014 to 2018, to the public function minister and the finance minister for the government to review and approve.”
The directive orders the newly-formed Public Function Ministry, responsible for administering civil servant salaries, to lead the working group and the Finance Ministry to name a vice president. The group will also draw on officials from the ministries of national defense, interior and social affairs.
The formation of the working group comes in the aftermath of the national election in July in which the opposition CNRP made major gains against Mr. Hun Sen’s ruling CPP.
The opposition’s pre-election promises included raising civil service salaries to a minimum $250 a month if it won the vote.
Only 10 days after Mr. Hun Sen’s CPP managed a narrow victory in the election, the government announced a larger-than-usual raise of at least 30 percent for some 90,000 of its civil servants. That raise is to take effect next year.
Kao Poeun, president of the Cambodian Independent Civil Servants Association, said Mr. Hun Sen’s long-ruling CPP had lost support among public sector employees, and the new working group’s success, or failure, would do much to determine whether that trend continues or gets reversed.
“At this stage, the government must do it; if it doesn’t, the ruling Cambodian People’s Party will die,” Mr. Poeun said.
“They [civil servants] say they don’t like the current management because the current management is plagued by nepotism and is not well organized,” he said. “The current management is messy and ridiculous because it is done like a family business.”
At the top of Mr. Poeun’s list of necessary reforms was a need to raise the rate of state revenue collection in order to pay for the higher salaries required by civil servants, and added that the opposition CNRP’s suggestion of $250 per month was a good start.
Mr. Poeun said that many state employees did not know clearly what their jobs were, and he advised the government to draw up descriptions for every post. He also urged the government to stop letting employees fill more than one public post, a recipe for poor performance.
“Normally a person can only work eight hours a day, so it is impossible if they go to work at a second place,” he said.
Opposition party chief whip Son Chhay said the first order of business should be to get rid of the many “ghost” employees on the government’s payroll, which the CNRP figures may be as high as 50 percent in the armed forces.
“This has to be the first priority; the government has to clean up this,” he said.
Mr. Chhay said the low salaries civil servants currently get paid practically guarantees corruption, and that they often must take second or third jobs that leave them little time to devote to their public posts.
With only 10 percent or 20 percent raises a year, he said, “it is not going to help because we are still going to have corruption, we are going to have poor services…it will not change the system.”
Civil service reform has also been a major priority of the government’s foreign donors. For many years, donors tried to work with the state on various schemes that paid out bonuses to civil servants working on donor-funded projects. But donors scrapped the latest iteration of the bonuses program last year due to fraught negotiations with the government on how to keep it going.
(Additional reporting by Zsombor Peter)