The government on Friday pledged a 20 per cent increase to the base salary of civil servants year-on-year in a move one government official insisted was based on economics, not politics.
The announcement was made in a statement released over the weekend outlining government spending for 2013, which it said would rise from this year’s planned $2.6 billion in spending to $3 billion for the next annual budget.
The promise comes just weeks after Prime Minister Hun Sen ridiculed a similar carrot dangled by the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party to the electorate, which the premier intimated could only be funded by hitting farmers with new taxes.
Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan said yesterday that no such taxes would be necessary and explained the money for such a raise had been found from upwardly revised predictions of GDP growth.
“We commit to raise 20 per cent to the base salary. We understand that 20 per cent we can afford with the GDP predictions,” he said.
The GDP growth, which Hun Sen predicted would come in at between 6.5 and 7 per cent during a speech given earlier this month, had been stimulated by Cambodia’s burgeoning but nascent agriculture sector, spurred by infrastructure investment.
Siphan said projected revenue from oil, minerals and gas would also help support it.
The yearly raises to the base salary could continue for five or 10 years and would be due to come into effect at the start of next year, he said, adding that civil servants had already been receiving raises for the past three or four years.
Sam Rainsy Party whip Son Chhay, who will officially join the CNRP when it is registered as the country’s main opposition party next year, said it was hardly a secret where the Cambodian People’s Party was really sourcing the money – its friends in Beijing.
“As you know, the government has been working with the Chinese, getting special loans from China. I think the loan from China would be part of the budget. This is a very bad move; you have to fund the budget based on revenue,” he said.
A month after returning from a trip to Beijing, where he secured more than $2.5 billion worth of investments and loans from China, Hun Sen on October 9 said no country would lend his government money to fund raises for civil service employees.
The premier was responding to a CNRP pledge to raise the base salary for civil servants, a term that in Cambodia has an unusually broad application, covering government administrators, soldiers, doctors, nurses, police and teachers, to 100,000 riel ($250) a month.
Currently, they can earn as little as $40 or $50 a month, a salary so low it forces many civil servants to resort to graft to meet their living expenses.
The CNRP’s plan for a minimum wage could be easily achieved by cleaning up endemic government corruption and retrieving the 50 or 60 per cent of potential revenue lost to tax evasion each year, Chhay said yesterday.
In his October 9 speech, Hun Sen ridiculed such suggestions, asking whether the opposition felt corrupt officials simply walked around with signs on their head saying so.
Chhay said yesterday there were some pretty obvious places to begin looking.
He accused the government of squandering huge amounts of revenue, including about $95 million a year calculated from Angkor Wat ticket sales administered by the Apsara Authority that he said had not been accounted for.
Then there were untold “ghost” civil servants pulling duplicate salaries from government coffers, he said.
Chhay questioned why the Ministry of Industry, Mining and Energy refused to respond to his request for them to disclose exactly how much revenue Cambodia had received from mining projects. Minister of Industry, Mining and Energy Suy Sem could not be reached for comment yesterday.
The government’s plan would likely help the CPP bolster an already formidable electoral dominance, which has seen its slice of the vote increase at every election since democracy was established under the Paris Peace accords in 1993.
But in future polls, it could backfire, political observers said, increasing the financial mobility of a civil service that opposition parties and rights groups argue is effectively indentured to the CPP because their meagre incomes force them to take handouts and kickbacks from the ruling party.
“I feel this pay rise has lifted the morale of public servants, especially those on the front line — nurses, police, grassroots public officials and teachers,” political analyst Lao Mong Hay said. “But I think it could just be a strategy for the election, without any real impact on the service of those public servants.”
Mong Hay suggested that if the government truly wished to overhaul the civil service, there were layers of fat to trim.
“At the political level, you have undersecretaries of state, secretaries of state, ministers, senior ministers and then deputy prime ministers,” he said, laughing. “I think in the medium term, they need to abolish one or two layers of public administration.”
Phuong Sovan, president of the Independent Civil Servants Association, said the raise would make little difference to civil servants who received staggered rates of pay through a four-tier system that ranged from as little as $30 to $125 a month.
“We want the government to support up to $250 a month so we can support the living standard, but 20 per cent doesn’t support the living standard,” he said.
With such a paltry raise – it amounts to as little $6 a month – civil-service corruption would remain rampant, Sovann said.
Some civil servants also receive allowances to help support expenses such as their families and accommodation.
The government budgeted $10.34 million a month in 2012 to pay 212,991 civil servants — an average of just $48 per employee, financial data provided by the SRP shows.
Despite freedom of association being enshrined as a universal right in the constitution, Cambodian civil servants are separately forbidden from forming unions, with only associations permitted.
The government has previously claimed that the salaries of civil servants have increased 540 per cent on average since 2001.
To contact the reporter on this story: David Boyle at [email protected]