Saturday, 20 June 2009

Salary standardization a move long overdue


AT A time when the national government is staring at what could be a record P350-billion budget deficit (by some private estimates), it would seem to be imprudent, reckless even, to start raising the salaries of government workers and officials. But that was what Congress recommended and Malacañang approved.

Shortly before she left for Japan on Thursday, President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo signed a joint resolution of the Senate and the House of Representatives adjusting the salaries of government officials and workers.

With the government employing 854,842 civil servants and 290,877 military and police personnel, the Salary Standardization Law-3 will cost the government P18.4 billion over the remaining six months of the current year, and a total of P125.6 billion over the next four years when the staggered salary adjustments are fully implemented.

But regardless of the global financial crisis and economic slowdown facing the nation, such salary increases are long overdue.

The last time the government adjusted the salaries of its workers was 15 years ago in 1994. In the meantime, the government became the employer of last resort for the country’s best and brightest even as it lost some of its most competent workers to the private sector or foreign employers.

The result has been not only a deterioration in the quality of public services but outright deprivation of some services in some cases.

Last year, for instance, Dr. Jaime Galvez Tan, a former secretary of health, pointed out that 21 towns and seven government hospitals in Samar had no doctors. The irony was that some 10,000 Filipino doctors had become nurses in the five preceding years, with about 6,000 of them leaving for abroad.

Of course, what has been happening in the health sector may be the extreme case. But a similar pattern of avoidance of and migration from the government service has been depriving the government of the services of technocrats and other highly trained professionals. And always the overriding reason is the poor compensation government pays.

The new law seeks to rectify this competitive disadvantage, but it doesn’t put the government in a position to give the private sector “good competition,” as deputy presidential spokesperson Lorelei Fajardo believes.

That may be true in the case of nurses and teachers whose entry-level salaries will be P14,198 starting July this year and rise to P18,549 in July 2012, or the lowest paid utility men whose salaries will be adjusted to P6,682 this year and increased to P9,000 in 2012. But the same thing cannot be said of lawyers and doctors who will receive P19,514 upon being hired this year and P26,878 if they join government in 2012.

And the disparities in government and private sector compensations widen further as you go up positions that require higher skills and more training and experience such as directors and assistant secretaries, even if their present salaries will be more than doubled (to P68,428 and P73,903, respectively) with the full implementation of the new law.

Budget Secretary Rolando Andaya Jr. was more modest and realistic in his expectations about the effects of the new law. “Though talent would follow the market that would pay for it,” he said, “we cling to the hope that the new Salary Standardization Law will stop or at least delay the migration of government-trained professionals to the private sector.”

Certainly the higher salaries should help stem the hemorrhage in highly trained and skilled manpower, but the Filipino people who will ultimately foot the bill do not just expect the government to be able to maintain its pool of talent.

They will demand a wider range and a more efficient delivery of public services. And they will expect not just greater efficiency but more honesty from civil servants as well as the members of the police force and the military services.

It is not merely coincidence that countries that pay their public officials generously are known to have the cleanest governments. The Filipino people expect a similar payback from their investment.

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