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Recruitments that count


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Giving yet another signal that the Government is preparing for elections, Cabinet this week approved the recruitment of 20,000 graduates in 2017 at an estimated Rs. 1.2 billion with more expected to be absorbed next year. Given the significant resources these new appointments will absorb, it is worth considering whether they are the best way to spend tax payer funds.    

Sri Lanka’s State and State-Owned Enterprise workers, excluding the military, grew a whopping 30% to 1.1 million from 2006 to 2016, according to a survey by the Census and Statistics Department released last year. The survey, which includes the Central Government, Provincial Government, statutory bodies and State enterprises, showed that not only is the public sector inflated, but it often made recruitments to areas of little use to the people.  

The Census Department report said it did not include the three services, but includes workers in the Ministry of Defence. According to 2015 data released by the Finance Ministry, Sri Lanka had 272,000 in various branches of the military and 84,000 policemen. Assuming the numbers were broadly unchanged, Sri Lanka could have a total public sector burden of 1,474,000 State workers, compared to 1,316,863 (Finance Ministry 2015) or 1,365,820 (Central Bank 2015). 

Finance Ministry data showed that 88,000 so-called ‘development officers’ had been recruited to the State service between 2005 and 2015, but only managed 11,000 medical officers, 33,000 nurses and 3,579 midwives. Politically-driven recruitment is clearly a major problem within the public service and continues to be a fiscal liability, especially since around 30,000 workers become pensioners each year. According to Finance Ministry data, the number of pensioners grew from 430,153 in 2006 to 564,472 in 2015, increasing the burden on private sector employees who often have to compete for their jobs and get far fewer perks than their public sector counterparts.   

There are also questions about their qualifications as about 17.8% of State workers, or 196,128, have not passed their Ordinary Level examination. Despite successive Governments recruiting enthusiastically, there are no scientific studies to evaluate the need for and productivity of these public servants. Almost all Sri Lankan Governments have tended to be proud to proclaim that they have increased public services and employment therein, despite the fact that this was contributing to a fundamentally-flawed fiscal framework, which is now becoming increasingly unaffordable.

 Economists have argued that when successive Governments were unwilling or unable to introduce economic reforms that would increase private sector job creation, they found the public sector to be a convenient employment creation agency. However, the macroeconomic instability arising from the current fiscal framework calls for a radical rethink of the traditional approach to the Government being the employer of first resort. No program of public service restructuring will be sustainable in this country unless it is supplemented by a package of other reforms that generates rapid expansion of private sector activity. In a country with a limited population, freeing up public sector workers might be the best recruitment tool for the private sector, but this remains the challenge as politicians continue to use recruitment as a gateway for votes. 

Absorbing unemployable people to unproductive sectors only makes it more difficult to develop the country, and the brunt of that is often faced by hard-working citizens who have chosen to work in productive sectors and pay taxes. Surely, it is time for these people to have their efforts honoured above short-term political gain.   

 


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