The Public Service Commission’s decision to radically change the terms of employment for government workers is bound to elicit stiff resistance. In a new plan announced yesterday, the government will henceforth employ people on contract for three years, only renewable subject to good performance. Unions, politicians and human rights groups are certain to challenge that.
The plan is profound and completely transforms public sector employment, which has traditionally been permanent and pensionable. But tough times call for tough decisions. The government has been a default employer, trusted and, although not the most preferred, valued and respected.
This decision is informed by concerns of a ballooning wage bill that, unless controlled, could get out of hand. A high wage bill has the effect of crowding out other expenditures and undermining the government’s ability to roll out capital development. Indeed, at a time of declining revenues, the imperative is to cut and rationalise costs — which means critically examining, among others, headcount and compensation schemes.
But challenges abound. First, the Public Service Commission (PSC) must brace itself for court battles from parties who will not take the matter lying down. Not when there are indicators that the government loses money through weak and porous controls, rendering its new employment policy meaningless.
Secondly, PSC must reconcile its policy with the overall development agenda. The government talks of creating jobs and becoming the employer of choice, and yet it resorts to short-term contracts that make its employment less attractive. And should the policy take root, it is likely to be taken up by private sector employers and cumulatively alter labour practices.
Thirdly, this is not the first time the government is undertaking such drastic measures to rationalise public service. For instance, major retrenchments were carried out in the 1990s under the Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAPs) propagated by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, which led to massive job cuts. But that did not improve public spending on workers. Some of these initiatives are only good on paper.
In essence, therefore, this policy change must be accompanied by other programmes. For example, the immense resources spent on compensating aides and so-called technical advisers for Cabinet secretaries and other top officials can be put to better use. And, there’s need to control employment at the counties, which reportedly have bloated headcounts, hence consuming huge sums of money and contributing to the high public sector wage bill.