Tens of thousands of surplus government employees and security personnel need to be laid off or assume other vacancies if the next Cabinet wants to cut waste and reduce the budget deficit, economists and experts said Tuesday.
“We can’t continue in this manner of work. We have at least 50,000 to 60,000 public school teachers, civil servants and Army and security personnel who are considered redundant,” economist Ghazi Wazni told The Daily Star.
“The new government needs to devise a solution to this issue to get the public finances in order.”
The salaries and end-of-service benefits for full-time civil servants, public school teachers, security personnel and retired staff represent at least 37 percent of total government revenues each year.
There are over 300,000 full-time and retired government staff on the Treasury payroll each year.
Bur most - if not all - of the main political parties in Lebanon are reluctant to address the problem publicly for fear of social backlash from their supporters, labor unions and left-wing parties.
In fact, some economists accuse mainstream political parties of contributing to the problem by hiring their supporters to government agencies in order to maintain political influence and improve their chances at election time.
To make matters worse, 5,000 security personnel and civil servants were added in 2018, despite a government pledge to freeze all hiring in public departments.
The International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and international investment banks have warned successive Lebanese governments against recruiting more people to the security forces and public departments.
Professor Rock-Antoine Mehanna, dean of the faculty of economics and business at Sagesse University, said the main problems of waste, corruption and fiscal imbalances were due to the inflated number of government employees.
“Public sector employees should not be more than 10 to 12 percent of the entire workforce by the international benchmark for such an economy,” Mehanna said.
“But in Lebanon, this average has exceeded 25 percent of the entire workforce, especially as the government added an additional 5,000 staff in 2018.”
He added that there was a surplus of staff employed in the security forces, public education and other government departments.
Citing an example, Mehanna said that there were currently at least 13,000 public school teachers too many.
“The Education Ministry used to have 10,000 surplus teachers in public schools. They added an additional 3,000 to this number recently. There is no place to put these teachers in new posts. We have one teacher for every nine students in public schools,” he said.
Mehanna proposed retraining some of the staff so they can fill other public-sector vacancies, such as in the Finance and Economy ministries.
Economists have noted that there are thousands of part-time workers in the electricity sector and real estate departments who collect monthly allowances.
“These are additional financial burdens on the Treasury,” Mehanna said.
The next government needs to take action to reduce the inflated size of the public sector, he added.
But Mehanna cautioned against any haphazard cuts in public spending once the new government assumes responsibility.
“It’s like sending a lamb to the butcher and throwing away the bones and the meat. We need to throw out the bones and not the meat,” he added.
Wazni said that in the 2012 budget, the Finance Ministry set the number of civil servants and security personnel at 165,300.
Around 91,000 of those positions are Army and security personnel, while 23,000 are civil servants and 56,000 are public school teachers, he said.
But successive governments added another 26,000, most of whom joined the security forces.
The number of retired public-sector employees and Army personnel is more than 100,000.
All of them collect end-of-service benefits each month.
“Half of the 23,000 civil servants do not even report to work and yet they collect their salaries.
“We need to conduct a compressive survey in all government agencies to determine the actual number of those who actually report to work,” Wazni said.
He expressed surprise at the decision to hire an additional 5,000 staff in government agencies, as there is no law to authorize the ministries to hire these people.
“I wonder on what basis the new recruits get paid if there is no budget to hire new employees. There are no allocations for these people,” Wazni said.
A source close to the Finance Ministry said the government must take a bold decision to restructure public departments, adding that action should be taken quickly.
“If, hypothetically, the government laid off 40,000 excess staff in one shot, then the Treasury would reduce the budget for the civil servants by 26 percent and save at least LL1.8 trillion [$1.2 billion] a year,” the source said.
Some of the economists indicated that retired Army and security officers collect end-of-service benefits that are equal to three times their monthly salaries for each year they served, while civil servants only collect one month’s salary for every year they worked.
“Many of the retired senior army officers collect an end-of-service package of at least $600,000 plus a lifelong monthly income.
“The army also designates a driver for retired [senior] army officers. I don’t think any country in the world provides such privileges,” Mehanna said.
By Osama Habib
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