The Malta Independent 4 December 2021, Saturday

Public sector over-employment and those blessed half-days

Stephen Calleja Sunday, 24 October 2021, 10:30 Last update: about 2 months ago

“Get a job with the government. You will never be sacked. You will have a solid employment for the rest of your life. You will never get a pay cut, and your salary can get better every year. There will be promotions if you work hard. And you can always try to move from one department to another if you do not like the one you’re working in. But your job is always safe.”

Many youngsters were given this advice when they left school and were seeking their first employment. Many discarded it for the private sector, where wages are higher, but others went for it, putting their minds at rest for all their working life.

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A salary in government employ on average does not go as high as other positions elsewhere, but it is always guaranteed.

We’ve seen it recently when the Covid-19 pandemic hit. Employees in the private sector had to take a pay cut for several months, and part of their wages was for a time paid by the government, whereas those in the public service continued to receive their dues as if nothing was happening.

Conditions in the public service are good too, and for many it includes half-days in summer. Most jobs are Monday to Friday at fixed hours, and without having to work during weekends and on public holidays.

People who want a safe employment structure and a job for life will find no better option than one with the government. It is said that whereas, in private employment, two jobs are done by one person, as companies always seek to cut costs by employing as few people as possible, in the public service there are more employees than needed.

This may be taken as too much of a generalisation as, after all, there are many public servants who are dedicated and committed to their duties, and who carry out their tasks judiciously and diligently.

But generally speaking there is less pressure in the public service, with more job security.

Jobs before elections

Like all entities, a government needs to recruit workers. It comes with natural turnover, as employees retire and need to be replaced. At other times there are sectors which suffer shortages and need to be beefed up, and so people are employed to fill that void. It must also be remembered that a hefty increase in population, like the one we have seen in the past decade, would also require more staff in certain government departments.

But when such recruitment takes place in the weeks and months leading to an election, and when it is not really justified, it is not surprising that the government is accused of trying to win votes.

It is not uncommon that government politicians offer jobs to people in their district in a bid to secure their vote, and that of their relatives. To be clear, it’s not a new phenomenon. It has happened in the past, under different administrations.

And it seems to be happening again.

The Malta Employers’ Association highlighted this in a document it presented to the government ahead of the budget for 2022.

The government’s habit of recruiting people coming from the private sector before an election is “in full swing”, the MEA said. This is leading to a brain drain from the private sector, a situation that needs to be reversed, it added.

Many companies are reporting that this shift from the private to the public sector is already taking place, although the date for the election is still to be made known.

The MEA said that this is a waste of human resources, and these jobs in public transport, tourism, construction and care working could easily be taken up by people who are under-employed if some kind of training is provided. Instead, poaching from the private sector is taking place.

The association had previously called for a moratorium on public sector jobs in the six months leading to an election. But, since the exact date of an election is never known until five weeks before, this freeze can never really take place. Added to this, no political party in power wants to commit to such an idea, while the party in opposition knows that its turn will eventually come to use this kind of power. So the status quo remains, and jobs continue to be handed out in the public sector as the election nears.

In 2017, employment in the public sector increased by almost 500 jobs in the weeks before the election. This is a far cry from the 8,000 increase registered before the 1987 election, but it is still worrying that this continues to happen, and is perceived as an attempt by the ruling party to win votes.

Review of public sector jobs

The Chamber of Commerce has gone one step further.

There should be an independent review of the human resources in the public sector, and anyone found to be working superfluous jobs should be seconded to the private sector, it suggested. This exercise – by third parties – would enable the public sector to take stock of its present resources, removing excesses and, if needed, beefing up other areas where more staff is needed.

It is hard to imagine that, if the idea is accepted, it will be implemented before this election. It would be risky for the government to appear to want to tinker with the set-up of its public service in such a delicate time. But, once the election is over, the government should make it as one of its priorities – at least, to discuss it before making up its mind.

It would be a win-win situation for both sectors – the government would cut down on its expenses while the private sector would take on staff which might be needed only on a temporary basis. The workers involved, then, would be sure of retaining their status as government employees once their secondment in the private sector expires.

The public sector has often been under the spotlight because of circumstances which indicate that the number of people in employment is already higher than what it should be – and therefore any more recruitment would only increase expenses to the government’s coffers without there being any value added to the services provided.

There have been and will continue to be many instances when citizens turning up in government departments come across workers milling about doing practically nothing, or chatting in corners, holding some papers to make believe they are busy. There are also many occasions when the number of government workers doing jobs in the street appear to be many more than what is needed – six or seven looking on while one man is doing something is a sight that has been seen so many times.

When these things happen, it is no wonder that the reputation of the public sector falls and there is a talk of over-employment. The indignation grows when it becomes known that the numbers increase on the eve of an election.

Half-days

But, if a real review of the public sector is to be carried out, it should look into the elimination of half-days.

Again, this is a subject that no political party wants to tackle, especially with an election being so close.

The subject has been brought up time and again, and each time whoever is in power says that the matter is closed without consideration.

Still, it is wrong on many counts that the government service shuts down almost completely on summer afternoons when the private sector continues to function. There are various instances when the private sector requires the services of some government departments on summer afternoons, but they have to wait until the following morning to get it.

A country that prides itself to be modern and which the government says seeks to be among the best (if not the best) cannot afford to have this kind of situation, which slows down the economic momentum.

An argument that is made against the elimination of half-days is that government employees work extra during the other months to make up for less hours in summer. Unions say that half-days are part of family-friendly measures, argue that workers who work outdoors should be spared the heat of the Maltese summer afternoons and that, after all, most services are now also offered online and so there is no need for the physical presence of employees.

The counter-argument by employers is that this “outdated labour practice” is leading to inefficiencies and that businesses should not be hindered by public sector policies which delay their own services and production. Government departments, it is argued, should be driven by what the market and consumers demand, and not what the employees want. Just as much as workers in the private sector have had to adapt to modern needs, public sector employees should do likewise. And since the public sector is a very important link in the chain of the service process, shorter working days negatively affect the private sector.  

Of course, with an election on the way, the subject will not be on the government’s agenda as it risks losing many votes, given that most public service employees treasure their half-days and have possibly chosen a career in public service because of the system in place.

But once the votes are counted and a new legislation starts, this subject should be put on the national agenda.

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