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Serving Sri Lanka

This web log is a news and views blog. The primary aim is to provide an avenue for the expression and collection of ideas on sustainable, fair, and just, grassroot level development. Some of the topics that the blog will specifically address are: poverty reduction, rural development, educational issues, social empowerment, post-Tsunami relief and reconstruction, livelihood development, environmental conservation and bio-diversity. 

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Words, Deeds and Sacrificial Lambs! : Another commission bites the dust!

The Island: 03/04/2006" by a Special Correspondent

The President’s recent assurance that honest public servants will be supported and defended in their decisions is very welcome. Notwithstanding such assurances and guarantees by successive governments and of course, his predecessors, they have been observed in variably in the breach. President Rajapaksa’s words were nevertheless reassuring considering his Mahinda Chinthanaya taking a flying start. Public servants were ready to proclaim — "Indeed a Daniel Come to Judgement!" The path to heaven is paved with good intentions they say, and no one could possibly doubt the good intentions of the President to rid the public service of corruption and to re-create an honest public service which can take fearless decisions with the ingredients of fair play and justice. Yet, how far he can proceed in a climate of political instability inherent with proportional representation is a serious question that naturally arises in the discerning mind. Political considerations apart, trade union pressures which promote self-interest over national interests are a major factor to be reckoned with.

Cracks have already begun to appear and independent decisions taken with due regard and examination, checks and balances, vis-a-vis the national economy and survival of public servants generally, have been severely attacked irresponsibly by trade union leaders not on grounds of consent reasoning to convince their membership but on totally irreconcilable and irrelevant demands to oust the institutional set up that examined the subject matter and made considered recommendations.

National Council for Administration (NCA)

The National Council for Administration was one of four institutions set up by the government of President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunge in August 2004 covering four broad categories which are relevant to the economy, the others being National Council for Economic Development (NCED), Strategic Enterprise Management Agency (SEMA) and National Procurement Agency (NPA). That this was a good move on her part has to be accepted.

Hence, the NCA had many responsibilities included in its mandate including the establishment of a permanent body for developing policies and programmes covering public administration. It was also expected to re-visit the salary structure recommended by the Salaries Commission of 2000 taking into consideration the ad hoc increases of salaries granted to specific sectors after 1997. In the one and a half years of its existence, the Board of Management of the NCA had completed many of its tasks, including a Draft Bill for the establishment of a permanent body, "National Council for Administration" and presented to government the necessary data and recommendations for the Budget Speech presented by the then Minister of Finance Sarath Amunugama on 8th November 2005. The highlights of this Budget Speech pertaining to salaries are contained in item 79 of the Speech, namely:

(a) minimum salary — Rs. 11,630/- per month (the new structure incorporate interim allowances and corrected prevailing anomalies. It provided more than the salary increase recommended in Budget 2004).

(b) cost of living allowance of Rs. 1,000/- adjusted on the basis of COL Index at end June and end December each year (minimum pay increase Rs. 1,300/- per month including COL allowance in 2006).

(c) encashable maximum of 30 days unavailed leave each year based on salary drawn as at 31st December that year.

(d) risk insurance scheme for specific categories to be identified.

(e) rectification of pension anomalies by extending the benefits provided through P.A. Circular 06/2004 to those who had retired before 01/01/2997.

(f) COL allowance for pensioners at Rs. 500/- per month.

(g) interim allowances paid to pensioners consolidated and granted 10% increase on unreduced pension — minimum of Rs. 500/- and a maximum of Rs. 1,250/.

(h) W&OP Act to be amended for widows who re-marry to be made eligible for W&OP pensions.

(j) concessionary duty on vehicles for public servants.

These proposals were endorsed by the President in his Budget Speech delivered on December 2005 together with enhanced Housing Loan facilities up to Rs. 3 million and three days’ paternity leave.

As indicated in Table 1 thereof, the lowest basic salary of a government servant before the issue of P.A. Circular No. 1/2006 was Rs. 7,150/- per month (Rs. 9,350/- including interim allowance of Rs. 2,200/-). The salary payable by 01/01/2006 was to be Rs. 7,900/- — Rs. 10,100/- including interim allowances. The proposals of the NCA ensured an upward revision of the lowest basic salary, inclusive of interim allowances to Rs. 11,630/- per month with effect from 01/01/2007 (Rs. 10,490/- with effect from 01/01/2006). It would be observed that there is much more on offer to public servants than revised salaries.

Unacceptable Demands

President Rajapaksa has very correctly taken up the position that the proposal by some vociferous unions to equate the increases with that given to professionals is ludicrous and the disparity recognises many other important aspects such as professional qualifications, the duration of academic training and post graduate training, the comparative employment prospects available in the private sector and abroad, the need to combat the brain drain in terms of the massive development agenda proposed etc.

In terms of the demands made by these unions everybody can cease their academic pursuits at "O" levels and sail through to the salary scale of Rs. 48,940/- for Secretaries. The narrowing of the percentage increase gap will also not lend to minimizing existing anomalies, especially as a result of ad hoc increases given in the past to various sectors without due consideration to the overall salary structure of the public service.

Management Assistants’ Service

Quite apart from the ad hoc increases in some sectors undue pressure had been brought to bear on the then government to establish Management Assistants’ Service incorporating the General Clerical Service, Government Typists Service, Government Stenographers Service, Government Bookkeepers Service, Government Shroffs Service and Government Storekeepers Service. The whole exercise had been to obtain a salary advantage and not to enhance the efficiency of those who belong to these various categories. Despite the new organization, it is understood that at present the different services go their own way as earlier.

It does not require much intelligence to realise that when it comes to promotions and transfers the extent of the confusion that arises and how inter-changes can take place from one category to the other. Further, the salary advantages had been relevant only for those in Class II (07 increments) and Class III (05 increments) of the new service and not for Class 1 and Supra Grades which appear to have created much dissension and unrest among those categories. And this mayhem, all for the sake of trade union pressure, without regard to repercussions — the sponsors more concerned about their personal advancement rather than their own colleagues in the higher rungs or how it will affect the public service as a whole.

The entire question is in an insoluble state and perhaps beyond repair without creating serious anomalies in the rest of the public service. Just one example of irresponsible action and power without responsibility!

Recommendations vs Decisions

The Budget Proposals 2005 inter alia mentioned as follows:

"The responsibilities of the Council are wide. Apart from continuously monitoring salaries, allowances, overtime, incentives etc. and making relevant recommendations to the government, it has been tasked with developing a national wage policy, cadre management in the public service, review of line ministries and other government agencies, identifying institutional shortcomings, managerial limitations and removing such constraints."

The NCA recommendations implemented through P. A. Circular No. 1/2006 pertaining to the new salary structure has been filtered through the Treasury and the Ministry of Public Administration and finally issued under the hand of the Secretary, Ministry of Public Administration, which takes the final responsibility or it. The NCA recommendations have reportedly had the serious consideration and analysis of many groups of experts well endowed with the relevant knowledge and experience in the public service and had gone through many discussions, seminars and dialogue with numerous trade unions. The recommendations had been objective and not subjective and taken cognizance of the state of the overall economy, the measures to be taken to retain qualified professionals in the public service and in the country and to minimise the brain drain to the private sector and abroad. Wild allegations of conspiracies are without the slightest substance. What need was there for the NCA to conspire? Whatever proposals have been considered as regards ratios prior to the issue of the final determination could be of no consequence in terms of the mandate of the NCA to continuously monitor as indicated in the quote aforesaid and there is no material significance in the reference by the unions to the formula of 1:3.8 which they are harping on. Further, the press release of 15 March 2006 by the Government Information Department regarding the appointment of a new Salaries Commission specifically states that the government has taken a policy decision that for the year 2006 salary structure the ratio between the highest level and the lowest level of public servant should be 1:4.2 which indeed is the ratio recommended by the NCA. Significantly therefore, the government in its wisdom has totally agreed with the NCA recommendations. Ironically, this ratio is a vast improvement from the ratio of 1:6.3 recommended by the 2000 Tissa Devendra Salaries Commission to which a leading opponent of the improved ratio had himself subscribed being a member of that Commission!

The Rebounding Effect

The private sector minimum wage for minor employees range from Rs. 3,500/- to 5,000/- and electrical grades from 7,000/- to 9,00/- per month compared to the minimum wage of Rs. 11,630/- per month for the lowest level recommended by the NCA for public servants. Any adjustments upwards in terms of qualifications, job descriptions etc., would not be realistic and will result in unrest among private sector employees.

The economy cannot bear it either. The demand by the public service unions is for a minimum wage of Rs. 15,630/- per month, (double that of the private sector). Hence, the desire by those in the private sector to compare and agitate for equivalent financial benefits would be impossible to resist without repressions to the private sector and prospective investors both local and foreign. On the other hand the proposed revised salaries for the higher rungs in the public service would still be incomparable with those in the private sector with their liberal perquisites, annual increases etc. The government bill on salaries has to be considered together with pension commitments as envisaged in the Budget Proposals as well as the decision to reintroduce pensionable status to future recruits to the public service. The NCA has been unfortunately made the sacrificial lamb despite the government accepting its formulae. One wonders why? It is a great pity that President Rajapaksa failed to match his words with the deed in this instance. The sacrifice has not appeased the "Gods" in any case. Those who seek the pound of flesh for appearing on public platforms and for electioneering do not seem to be interested in safeguarding the government, the President and the national economy and to co-operate in a viable solution. There lies the paradox!

"Strike" was the weapon of last resort in the days gone by. Now the agitation commences with a strike and its success is assured with every government with liberal hand-outs of strike pay. Sickness is anticipated and due notice given of sick notes. They are paid for fraud and no disciplinary action is taken –– Illan Parippu!!

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