You don’t need to be a clairvoyant to see the Cambodian government’s so-called “ghost workers”. They’re everywhere. They work in shops, restaurants and NGOs, clean houses, teach languages, guard buildings and fix leaky roofs.
Supposedly employed as bureaucrats, advisors, police officers, soldiers and teachers, these phantom civil servants rarely – if ever – go to work. With no mandated minimum salary, and little supervision, they commonly spend their days undertaking more lucrative activities in the private sector.
Last month the head of the Anti-Corruption Unit, Om Yentieng, announced another one of the government’s periodic ghost-busting campaigns. All state institutions have until November to sort out their payrolls: anyone after that time found to be facilitating irregular payments will be prosecuted, according to Yentieng.
In the firing line are civil servants like Mao Heng*, who is in his late 30s and has been a ministry bureaucrat for about 20 years. Heng is unusual in that he does do some work for the government. But even he is there less than a third of the time. The rest of his days are occupied doing freelance translation and consulting, and working for an opposition political party.
“Many people like me get only $150 a month, while my family’s expenses, based on my real situation, are around $700 to $800 a month,” he said. “So, instead of living on the government assistance, for our survival I do some other work.
Some people would like to call it ‘moonlighting’.”
He said each ghost worker’s arrangement was different. Some gave some or all of their salary to their superior, others gave their bosses gifts during annual celebrations or simply did occasional favours.
It’s difficult to say how many of Cambodia’s 190,000 civil servants are ghost workers, but Heng estimated about two-thirds of the people employed at his ministry either do not come to work or have some form of alternative employment.
If everyone supposed to work there actually did come into the office, the place would be bursting at the seams, he said.
“Those who are really active in the government – those who have vital responsibilities – they do work and they get some extra money, but those who do not have enough financial assistance or salary to live, they work outside,” he said.
It’s not just money that drives civil servants to find work elsewhere, Heng said. Lacking support or resources to perform any meaningful role, they are often bored and frustrated.
“If we do not have enough means or support or encouragement and so we don’t go to the ministry, do we define those people as ghost employees or do we define them differently?”
According to the Council for Administrative Reform’s Handbook for Civil Servants published in 2010 government employees are supposed to work eight hours a day, Monday to Friday from 7:30am until 11:30am and then 2pm until 5:30pm.
The handbook says it is “strictly forbidden” for government employees to “undertake work for personal purposes during the hours of service”, with violations leading to disciplinary sanctions.
However, many ghost workers don’t go to work at all.
Some don’t even keep the money they “earn” for themselves, said Sophal Ear, author of Aid Dependence in Cambodia: How Foreign Assistance Undermines Democracy.
“They give their salary to their boss in an act known in Khmer as monosancheatana, the precise definition of which I can’t really explain – it’s a kind of offering/debt of gratitude act – but the bottom line is: ‘You keep my job on the rolls while I am a ghost worker and in exchange I give you my paycheck’.”
This serves two functions: to maintain the ghost workers’ position on the off chance salaries increase to the point the job is worth doing; and to maintain connections to power.
“Everyone and their mother can claim k’se [string] to something or someone when one is in need of help/favours, but your string might be longer than my string. That’s also where monosancheatana comes in, the back and forth scratching of each other’s backs.”
Sebastian Strangio, the author of Hun Sen’s Cambodia, said the country had “little or no” history of independent and accountable government institutions.
“Today the civil service serves as a reservoir of patronage – a matrix of personal relationships that serve as conduits for resources and personal influence,” Strangio said.
“In this system, civil servants don’t serve the ministry – they serve the minister. Of course there are many civil servants who have a genuine desire to weed out corruption and serve the people who elected them. Unfortunately, these individuals remain trapped by the circular inertia of the country’s patronage system, which is now beyond the control of any one individual.”
Previous attempts to eliminate ghost workers from the govern-ment’s payrolls have uncovered vast numbers.
In December 1994, Phnom Penh’s civil servants were locked in their buildings for two hours for a headcount. About 18,000 non-existent workers were discovered.
Audits were also conducted in 2001, when the government announced it had found about 9,000 ghost civil servants; in 2010 when 30,000 were eliminated from the payroll, including some 28,000 identified at the provincial level as well as in the police and military; and in 2011 when another 4,000 ghosts were found.
CNRP parliamentarian Son Chhay described the public service as “a mess”.
Chhay this coming week plans to submit a draft law to the National Assembly mandating a national monthly minimum wage of about $171, and for civil servants to get at least about $245 per month.
He said the government should review the qualifications of all relatives in the ministries to eliminate nepotistic appointments and introduce a technological solution, such as fingerprint scanning at offices, to solve the problem of attendance.
“We need real reform so the real people get better paid and better jobs,” he said.
However, a previous attempt to introduce just such a technological solution failed miserably, said Kao Poeun, President of the Cambodian Independent Civil Servant Association.
“In the previous time, the Anti-Corruption Unit put thumbprint scanners in each civil service building, but it did not work because, even though they counted presence, there was no punishment for the person who didn’t give their thumbprint.”
The ministry of Finance in November last year signed contracts with Acleda Bank, Canadia Bank and Wing Cambodia to pay the country’s civil servants by direct deposit instead of cash.
The idea was to make pay more convenient for the employees but also to eliminate ghost employees because they would have to come to the bank and open an account.
However, Heng said this just made the lives of those who never attended their jobs even easier.
“Now they never have to come to the office at all,” he said.
Corruption and patronage is so deeply ingrained in the government and civil service only wholesale systematic change would have any meaningful effect, he said.
“The root of the problem is concentrated, centralised power,” he said. “The government is above the law.”
Actually solving the ghost worker problem would provide a massive boost to Cambodia, said Ear.
“In an office of, say, 225 civil servants, 40 show up regularly, imagine how much could be done if the pay of these 40 workers could be quintupled? It would be transformative for the system,” he said.
“[At the moment] the ones who can earn more will go outside [the government] to do that. The ones who want to engage in corruption will unfortunately fester.
“It’s just like a VP of a private university in Phnom Penh who said when I asked him if any graduates would want to work in government, ‘If you look at government salary, unless you plan to be corrupt, you have no future in that’.”
A spokesman for the World Bank, which for some years worked with the government on civil service reform, said it had no projects on the issue of ghost workers and directed questions to the Ministry of Public Function.
But Minister of Public Function Pich Bunthin said that it was the Anti-Corruption Unit’s responsibility to take action on the issue of ghost workers.
The head of the Anti-Corruption Unit Om Yentieng did not respond to multiple requests for comment this week.
Additional reporting by Vandy Muong.
* Not real name