BEIRUT: Implementing badly needed reforms in government departments has been the goal of almost all successive governments.
One of the demands that surfaced in recent years was the restructuring of the overblown number of civil servants, public school teachers and to a lesser extent the military – or to say in an impolite way, to lay off the redundant staff who are seen by some private quarters as nothing more than “dead wood.”
But this pressing issue was never taken seriously by the cabinets, although some ministers realize that the number of government employees, public school teachers and military personnel are one of the causes of the huge budget deficit.
There are no accurate figures on the number of civil servants, public school teachers, military and security personnel and contractual workers on the government payroll.
But the Finance Ministry estimates the number of full-time government employees, which includes public school teachers and military personnel, at 185,000.
This figure does not include the contractual and part-time teachers, employees and electricity workers who receive irregular allowances for their services but do not enjoy social and medical benefits from the state.
Economists and observers stress that as long as politicians block any attempt to reform the public departments and address the issue of redundant staff, the budget deficit will continue to swell.
A recent study published by the Basil Fuleihan Institute estimated that there are 22,000 vacant positions in various civil service departments, noting that these positions have been vacant for many years.
But at the same time, economists say that there are at least 10,000 redundant public school teachers and many of the contractual workers are not really needed.
“In some government sectors, the number of vacant positions represent nearly 70 percent of the total positions,” economist Kamal Hamdan told The Daily Star.
However, officials who spoke off the record admit that filling these positions is not easy because some of these posts require high qualification and a university degree.
They added many redundant employees are not fit to fill these vacant positions and some simply refuse to do intensive training program or take a test so they can be qualified to assume the new responsibility.
“The government has put a freeze on hiring new people. We are only allowed to take current government staff from other departments. But none of these staff have agreed to be transferred to the finance ministry,” one official said.
Hamdan added that the political and sectarian systems have prevented any effort to address the number of the military and security personnel who according to some estimates are more than half of the employees under the government payroll.
“But because the country needs the services of the security and military personnel especially at this stage, none of the politicians dared to talk about the big number of these servicemen, which cost the treasury lot of money,” Hamdan argued.
The allocations to cover the wages and end of service benefits of government employees and retired staff is more than $4.4 billion a year, the second biggest spending item in the budget after the cost of debt servicing.
Hamdan said there are 25,000 public school teachers and 25,000 contractual teachers.
“This means that we have one public school teacher for every seven students only. This is one of the lowest ratios in the world. We cannot continue like that,” he added.
Hamdan and other economists insist that 10,000 public school teachers are redundant, advising the government to lay them off after paying them their compensations.
“But no one has the courage to openly say that 10,000 public school teachers should be laid off because most of them were appointed by influential political parities more than 10 years ago. This is some sort of nepotism and favoritism,” he added.
Future MP Ghazi Youssef said many contractual employees were brought by politicians in the hope that in the future they will become full-time government employees with full medical and social benefits.
“But on the other, hand we have 25,000 public school teachers and another 25,000 contractual teachers. This is an army. Most of them are not needed and they are costing the treasury a lot of money,” he explained.
According to Youssef, the cost of yearly salaries for all the public school teachers and contractual teachers is more than $1.3 billion a year.
“We have a problem in filling the vacant posts in some civil service departments. When we ask the employees to undergo the extensive training program, no one shows up,” Youssef said.
Youssef and other economists warned that this chaos should not continue forever.
He added that the other problem facing the Finance Ministry is the high cost of end of service benefits for the retired government employees.
“The end of service benefits, including monthly wages and lump sum payments, have jumped from $530 million six years ago to $1.2 billion now,” Youssef said.
Economist Samir Nasr said no one has accurate figures on the number of civil servants and army personnel.
“How can we assess the magnitude of the problem if we don’t have transparency and accurate figures? This is really unacceptable,” he added.