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Municipal police rest during an exercise in Phnom Penh last month
Municipal police rest during an exercise in Phnom Penh last month. Recent government promises have included salary increases for civil servants, however no polices have been amended. Sreng Meng Srun

Rise of the bureaucrats

Analysis
When the ruling Cambodian People’s Party promised civil servants a pay rise earlier this year, some suggested it was also trying to give them a reason to vote for it in July’s national election.

The 20 per cent increase came amid the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party’s pre-election push to lure the support of those in the civil service by promising them a $250 minimum wage if it formed government.

Analysts attributed some of the CNRP’s success at the ballot to its ability to capture the vote of disenfranchised government workers.

Now warnings are continuing to come from unions and the opposition that, even though the election is over, leaders can no longer take this increasingly powerful voting bloc for granted – now or in coming years.

Opposition lawmaker Son Chhay said yesterday that a 20 per cent increase to civil servants’ salaries – even annually, which the government has promised – “does not even cover inflation” and won’t be enough to appease civil servants in the long-run.

“The government needs to … provide civil servants a decent living and enough for food to feed the family. We have explained in detail where the money would come from,” he said, adding that cracking down on a $500 million “embezzlement” of tax would easily cover the pay rises his party pledged pre-election.

Days before the July ballot, figures released by the government showed teachers across the board would receive raises, suggesting it sensed a potential loss of support.

In August – as the opposition continued disputing the results of the ballot – the Ministry of Economy and Finance announced it would increase the baseline wage of civil servants to $80 per month from about $62, as well as give 90,000 workers a 40 per cent pay rise.

When asked to provide a breakdown of increased expenditure from the government’s 2014 draft budget – which is $500 million bigger than this year’s – Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan said a significant amount would be spent on civil servants’ salaries, but declined to elaborate.

Ath Thorn, president of the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers’ Democratic Unions (C.CAWDU), said it was promising that the government was paying more attention to civil servants.

“Allocating more money for civil servants in the budget and raising wages shows some respect for the role they play in the economy,” he said.

“Our hope is that they will continue to increase salaries now that the government has lost so many seats [in parliament].”

Many civil servants make less than garment workers and are prevented from forming unions due to a 1994 law that contradicts the constitutional right to organise.

But the growing political clout of civil servants means the CPP must continue to try to appease the workers’ demands, at least until the opposition takes its seats in the National Assembly, Thorn added.

“If the new government does not consider improving the salaries of civil servants, they will lose more support during the current mandate.”

But Ou Virak, Cambodian Center for Human Rights president, said the level of support from civil servants for the ruling party is something that has been overestimated.

“[The CPP] tend to think that they have support [from civil servants] because they show up to rallies and events and wear the [CPP] T-shirts,” he said. “Resolving this issue will go a long way towards de-polarising Cambodia.”

Even so, while the government would pay close attention to civil servants’ demands, its pledges of higher pay may be an insincere attempt to avoid a further hemorrhaging of support to the opposition, he added.

“There’s plenty of room for them to improve salaries in this current budget, but it remains to be seen whether these pledges will turn into something more than that.”

For now, Siphan, from the Council of Ministers, said the government would not change its policy of annual 20 per cent increases.

Unlike the CNRP, he added, the government would not play with the livelihoods of workers by promising an “unrealistic” $250 minimum monthly wage.

“The government has a program to raise salaries, but we don’t buy votes from this.

“The other side buys votes by offering $250. It’s not possible,” he said.

But Chhay, from the CNRP, said the government would need to do something if it wanted to keep civil servants on side or win back those it had lost in July.

“They can’t bear the behaviour of the ruling party anymore,” he said.

“The choice for the CPP is to at least pay them better.

“If they want to bring them back to support them, they have to pay them.”

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