Economist Says Public Servants Must Justify Huge Wage Bill.
‘A fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work’ is the mantra that Nigeria-based Saint Lucian economist, Dr. Hyginus Gene Leon, is exhorting all public servants to adopt for the Saint Lucian public sector to justify its wage bill.
Dr. Leon made the comments as he delivered this year’s Sir Arthur Lewis Memorial Lecture last Thursday evening focussing on the theme, “Recreating our future”, and expounding on four principal sub-themes, namely re-creation, reflection, re-imagination and reposition.
He flew into Saint Lucia last week from Nigeria where he lives and works to deliver the lecture at the National Cultural Centre as part of this year’s Nobel Laureate Week activities.
During his 90-minute-long presentation, the economist, who has been with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) since 1996, said Saint Lucia needs to capitalize on its comparative advantage in key areas, including patenting some of its intellectual property and outsourcing it to larger, developed countries that can produce goods and services.
Moreover, he said, Saint Lucia needs to keep abreast with current global trends in different sectors and make the necessary adjustments to adapt to such changes that can hurt the island economically.
But he also cautioned public servants against becoming complacent by adopting the “my government is in” mentality.
Comparatively, Saint Lucia has about 9,700 people employed in the public service, providing service for a population of 170,000. In Nigeria, one million public servants serve the population which numbers 178.5 million.
But is Saint Lucia’s public sector large or small? Is the high wage bill justified?
“The question to ask is whether those close to 10,000 public sector workers are producing as much as they ought to be producing to give value for the money that is being expended rather than is the workforce too big for the size of the population,” Dr. Leon responded when probed by The VOICE.
Dr. Leon said the role of the government is predicated on the service it intends to provide: a political sphere where politicians have their desires, a social sphere where everybody wants everything and an economic sphere where everything needs to balance. Finding that right balance, he said, is often problematic.
“Why do we have over 9,000 people (in the public sector)? It’s probably because governments in the past have become almost employers of first recourse because it serves a social and political purpose but clearly does not serve an economic purpose,” Dr. Leon said.
Dr. Leon said the problem gets worse when the entrenched attitude manifests itself in some public servants taking a lackadaisical approach to working hours, thus hampering performance and production targets.
In delivering his Budget Statement in May, 2014, Prime Minister Dr. Kenny Anthony said wages and salaries in the previous year represented “a significant share of annual expenses, accounting for 48 percent of recurrent expenditure”.
That figure, the Prime Minister added, represented 13% of the island’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP), well above the ECCB’s prudential target of 9% to 10% of GDP. While retrenchment was not on the cards, the Prime Minister said some sacrifices needed to be made to keep the current level of employment in that sector.
While Dr. Leon refrained from saying definitively whether Saint Lucia public sector was too large, he said that benchmarking Saint Lucia’s public sector size with other countries might prove it is. The key point, he said, is what value the public sector provides and at what cost.
“Let’s justify that. If it can’t be justified, then maybe we need to rethink, which doesn’t have to be a smaller (workforce) but doing better,” Dr. Leon said.
Whether the local public sector is large or small, though, the economist believes that given the economic constraints faced by successive governments that have often complained about its wage bill being too high, public servants need to see their jobs as being key to national development.
“Let us at least all agree that it is our national responsibility to honour a full day’s work with full zeal and curiosity that will deliver the service,” Dr. Leon said. “That we’re delivering the service we’re being paid for and that we will leave work knowing that we have done a full day’s work in the interest of the country.”
The public wage bill has always been a contentious issue, especially when trade unions are bargaining for wage increases for their members. While trade unions contend that their members are forced to work under deplorable conditions in some instances for little pay, successive governments have argued that under-productivity continues to plague the public sector.