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Civil servants, tenure and contracts: ignoring history (edited in FT 23/9/2017)

23/09/2017

Civil servants, tenure and contracts: ignoring history (edited in FT 23/9/2017)

In the last few weeks, Minister Aiyaz Khaiyum has stirred several hornets’ nests with announcements that civil servants will have the choice of going on contracts with higher salaries or remaining in their current tenure without any salary increases.

Khaiyum blames incompetency in the three largest government ministries of education, health and agriculture.  Khaiyum states that the “system is not bad but the administration of the individual ministries is the problem”. An immediate question arises, why force the ordinary civil servants onto contracts if it is the administration that is at fault?

In the absence of the Minister of Education who is facing criminal charges, Khaiyum also surprisingly announced key reform programs for the Ministry of Education supposedly  to improve teacher-to-student ratios in schools, restructure the Education Offices and Ministry Headquarters and especially the Ministry of Education’s Human Resources Department.

Khaiyum claimed that the reforms sought “to promote merit-based recruitment and selection…  improve internal processes and procedures, job evaluations, contract issuance and an entire range of other services that support school-based operations. The public might well ask, is Khaiyum admitting that this has not been happening for the  ten long years that Bainimarama and Khaiyum have been in charge?

Not only are teachers concerned about their unfair treatment but also Health professionals such as dentists, doctors and nurses. The Khaiyum attack on their terms of employment, already poor, is therefore absolutely extraordinary  given that for three decades, Fiji has been suffering from the emigration of precisely these professionals who are able to receive abroad, two to three times their Fiji  salaries, plus all the other benefits for their families of living in developed countries.

How extraordinary that Khaiyum claims that in contrast to previous years, private sector employees were now “showing interest to join the public sector” as indicated by the interest shown by some accountants from the big four firms in Fiji.  Really? Might the interest be shown by Khaiyum’s own personal favorite accountants and auditors in the private sector?

The changes proposed by Khaiyum strike at the heart of centuries of civil service policies the world over and have predictably met with passionate opposition right across the board from the most powerful unions in Fiji even if they have been in “safety mode hibernation” for the last ten years.

But Bainimarama should be asking himself, why is he allowing his “right hand man” to stir the hornets’ (voters’)  nests right before the 2018 Elections, just as Ratu Mara did with his 1984 Wage Freeze?

The public should be asking themselves why it the Public Service Commission and the Commissioners are totally silent on all these draconian changes which undermine the smooth operation of a good dedicated and principled civil service?

The predictable opposition

Fijian Teachers Association (FTA) Acting General Secretary (Peni Delaibatiki) noted that these changes, without any consultation with the unions,  created fear and insecurity among teachers,  adversely affecting their moral and delivery of services.

The General Secretary of the  Fiji Teachers Union (Agni Deo Singh) pointed out the only salary increase received by teachers was that just before the 2014 election and was still inadequate; that  some  2000 teachers had  been demoted via the new contracts (contrary to government claims that no one would be put on inferior terms); that the teachers on the ground are not at all happy; and wold adversely  affect the delivery of quality education.

The General Secretary of the Confederation of Public Sector Unions (Rajeshwar Singh) said that Government was putting civil servants on forced contracts and effectively withdrawing from the Collective Bargaining, in breach of Section 189 of the ERP (Amendment) Act No. 1 of 2016 and also the 2013 Fiji Constitution. He declared that the Confederation would  challenge the compulsory offer of contracts through available means

The Leader of the Fiji Labour Party and experience unionist (Mahendra Chaudhry) noted that employment contracts fell under the purview of the Employment Relations Act and thus proper procedures must be followed under the collective bargaining provisions of the Act for any changes to be made to these contracts. He pointed out that the announced pay  increase for the civil service, effective from August 1, 2017, was “a job evaluation award and should bear no relevance to an employee’s tenure of employment.” He advised the  public service unions to “strongly resist” this “imposition on our people” and that their members should not sign up.

The Leader of NFP (Professor Biman Prasad) called the move by the Ministry of Education to have permanent staff members sign five -year contracts before they are eligible for the pay increment as “blackmail” and an election “gimmick” to pacify teachers who had silently suffered for the past several years. He noted that the Bainimarama Government arrogance and ill thought out reforms seriously undermined the teachers’ professional, social and economic status. The government measures were not only  unethical but also unlawful, given that employers were bound by the employment contracts of their employees.

In case some media hacks dismiss Professor Prasad’s criticisms as “cheap politics”, it is useful to analyzed the proposed Bainimarama Government changes from first principles.

The “civil service” fundamentals

Private sector employees are there to serve the interests of their  employers, and their performance is usually judged by their impact of employer profitability. It is generally accepted that private sector employers are free to hire and fire, to promote or demote, to increase of decrease salaries.

Civil servants on the other hand, are “servants” or employees of taxpayers and supposed to serve the public with integrity, without fear or favor.

In all good civil services, these civil servants are employed according to merit- qualifications, experience, track record, dedication being important.

To ensure that the right civil servants are appointed and perform as expected, there used to be a Public Service Commission operating within well defined regulations which protected both the employer (the public), and the civil servants,  who in turn have clear Appeals Mechanisms if they thought they were being unfairly treated by the PSC.

Governments and government ministers (the “agents”) are also supposed to serve the public (the “principal”) in their employment of  civil servants.

But economic and business theory have long recognized the “principal/agent” problem especially where large corporation managers are distant from the thousands of shareholders: the “agents” or managers can sometimes totally ignore the interests of the shareholders (the “principal”)and begin to serve their own personal self-interest and objectives.

Similarly, government ministers, for their own personal objectives, may totally unfairly treat “their” employees, the civil servants, even if they are being deeply faithful to the “public” and the taxpayers.  This would have been extremely unlikely in the good civil services in the old days- a great advantage and safeguard for the public especially given that governments and ministers can come and go at the whim of voters.

From tenure to contract

In the above context, the proposed changes from tenure to contracts in which all power resides in the Ministers, with no recourse to appeal, is clearly designed to ensure that all civil servants must serve the Government and Ministers concerned or not have their contracts renewed.

Just as with the objectives of the 55 year retirement rule in that the most civil servants at the top (usually reaching that age) must depend totally on pleasing their ministerial masters or simply have their contracts not renewed.

The proposed changes from tenure to contract are therefore a simple logical next step to what the Bainimarama Government has been already doing for the last ten years, except that they wish to ensure that all of these changes in civil service employment conditions are integrated into the 2013 Constitution that they have imposed on all Fiji.

The public might wish to note that one vice chancellor of a particular university has also used an alleged retirement age “rule” to send packing any academic who does not practice total loyalty to the VC, and thus also has total discretion to keep renewing those past the retirement age, as long as they remain loyal to him personally.

The silence of the PSC

It is incredibly disappointing that throughout all this current turmoil the PSC and the PSC Commissioners have been silent. including reputable private sector CEOs (Mohan) and a leading USP academic (Dr Akinisi Kedrayate) who should know better.

This should not be surprising any more given that the PSC Commissioners were equally silent  over the imposition of the 55 year retirement rule, the abnormal massive increases in Permanent Secretary salaries just prior to the 2014 Elections, the appointment of many expatriates at senior levels in the civil service, and many other fundamental changes to the way that the Fiji Public Service has operated.

It is extremely sad and undeniable that with the advent of the 2006 military coup and the Bainimarama Government, the old PSC mode of operation has been totally undermined.

Powers over civil servants have been supposedly devolved to Permanent Secretaries, in reality to the Ministers (unelected or elected) who have been able to freely hire, fire, demote, promote and remunerate, largely as they wished.

It is general knowledge also that all Ministers (except one perhaps) have not been able to make any decisions regarding their ministry without the approval of the all-powerful two Ministers who hold all the key portfolios anyway.

These latest changes will merely formalize what has been the reality- that two Ministers have total control over the Fiji public sector, in virtually all respects.

Shades of 1984 Wage Freeze

Some of us older folk (and academics Narsey and the late Durutalo) were well aware of the implications of Ratu Mara’s Alliance Government unilaterally imposing the Wage Freeze in 1984 when they contributed to the Biannual Labor Conference in 1985.

By breaking all the Tripartite Agreements that had been in  force before that and antagonizing the unions and workers of Fiji, the Mara Government guaranteed its own defeat the next election.

That draconian crude Wage Freeze which was completely unfair to the workers in many industries which were doing well at the time, led to the workers of Fiji rising in protest and forming the Fiji Labour Party. That allowed the NFP/FLP Coalition to take away enough indigenous Fijian votes in the urban areas to defeat the Alliance Party.

But no doubt, Bainimarama would have also remembered that the loss of the Alliance Party was soon remedied by the 1987 coup which removed the elected NFP/FLP Coalition.

Hold on, which lesson? Because the 1987 coup was led by Rabuka, the current leader of SODELPA, the largest Opposition Party to FFP.

Are those who ignore history, doomed to repeat the mistakes of history?

 

Annex: The Ministry of Education puzzle

One of the most astonishing developments in recent weeks has been the sight of the Minister for Education facing a criminal charge that he  “conferred or offered to confer a benefit, namely a steady water source, for the Ra High School in order to influence the vote of Waisea Lelobo, the school manager”.

I say astonishing because nearly all Ministers in the Bainimarama Government, and especially its two leaders of Bainimarama and Khaiyum for more than five years been conferring “benefits” (water tanks, roads, and even cash hand-outs) to communities all over Fiji, with the undisputed objective of winning votes for Fiji First Party.  Even the current Speaker (Jiko Luveni) achieved fame by delivering Chinese sewing machines to women all over Fiji.

Common sense would indicate that all these handouts of taxpayers’ or donor funds, in addition to whatever altruistic motive the ministers may have had,  were also motivated by the hope that voters would remember these benefits at the next election. So why is Dr. Reddy suddenly facing criminal charges for allegedly doing the same?

Note that when announcing the education reforms, Khaiyum took the trouble of praising the Permanent Secretary of Education, but not the Minister for Education..

Even more astonishing was that when the Minister for Education Dr. Mahendra Reddy, was asked for a comment on the most fundamental changes being proposed to his Ministry, he said: “I will respond if I feel it is appropriate to respond.”

How extraordinary that the Minister for Education thinks that it is not appropriate for him to respond to probably the most fundamental shakeup of his Ministry by another Minister. Ooops.  Perhaps not so extraordinary given that the other Minister is Khaiyum, Minister for All Things?

 

 

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