Government inaction could lead to polarised society
Recent comments made by Liberal Party members and your correspondents, in these columns, have once again brought into focus the brewing public discontent with the disparity between civil service and private sector remuneration.
In the face of an economic downturn, it is always private sector employees who suffer. For the past few years, commercial firms have been reducing staff salaries, getting rid of fringe benefits, laying off workers and changing contract terms to effect voluntary resignations. Amidst these blows to the labour market, civil servants, who only had their wages frozen for two years, have remained relatively unaffected.
The average 2.6 per cent salary increase in the business sector this year was a short-lived improvement over salary levels which have fallen. A pay rise given to all civil servants whose salary scales are comparatively higher than their private sector counterparts, further widens the huge gap between the two sectors.
Apart from pay increases applied invariably to everyone regardless of efficiency and performance, civil servants enjoy unique fringe benefits, including pensions and lifelong medical care for non-contract staff. Above all, employment security, the so-called ''iron rice bowl'', makes them immune to theconstant threats of dismissal which daily haunt their private sector counterparts.
The call for a 10 per cent reduction in civil service salaries has, however, fallen on deaf ears. The Secretary for Civil Service took an intransigent stand, citing the Government's annual pay trend survey that ''has been in use for many years'' and is ''complicated'' to revamp. The crux of the matter lies in this anachronistic pay review mechanism. Since the system has not been evaluated since 1988, its reliability is questionable, in that it may have fallen out of step with radical structural changes in our economy. Over the years, the accumulated effects of periodical salary adjustments based on outdated standards are overwhelming.
The complexity of a system should not be an excuse for inaction and procrastination. The Government must speed up its implementation of the proposals in the 1999 consultation paper, Reforming the Civil Service Management System, featuring a review of the starting salaries in the civil service, and improved pay trend indicators to ensure compatibility with the private sector.
Given that the economic signs in the coming year are not good and that the administration will report an alarming budget deficit, officials must take immediate action. If they do not, we will see a polarised community.