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Pay rise for civil servants too little to lift them out of poverty

[Liberia] Children haul heavy bundles [07/15/2006] Ansu Konneh/IRIN
The whole family pitches in to help in Liberia where unemployment is high and salaries are low.
A new budget approved by the Liberian Senate provided for a pay rise for civil servants, but this only brought them to the threshold of the World Bank’s poverty indictor of US $1 per day.

When President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf presented her first budget in June, it proposed increasing civil servant salaries from $16 US dollars per month to $26. Members of the House of Representatives and the Senate later agreed to $30.

“I have to pay rent, which is US $50, and my children need to eat… life is very difficult for me and the family,” said Andrew Johnson, 44, who has worked as a government school teacher for more than 20 years.

For Johnson, who said that his current salary hardly lasts three days, the recent announcement of a pay rise will do little to alleviate his financial burdens, feed his wife and four children and put a roof over their heads. He said a 50-kilo bag of rice alone costs between US $22 and $30.

Throughout the 14 years of civil war, Johnson remained in the capital, Monrovia, to teach, even as his wife and children fled to her family village during one surge in rebel activity between 1989 and 1991. His dedication to his profession, however, has provided few financial benefits for him. He said that transportation to and from work costs about US $20 per month.

“Our students sometimes help us out with taxi fares,” he said.

To help make ends meet, Johnson’s wife, Kotati, sells cooking ingredients from a battered table outside their rented house. Additionally, Johnson has second, third and fourth jobs teaching private classes to the children of “rich parents” after his regular school hours.

“At least I get a substantial amount from those parents at the end of the month,” Johnson said. He earns about US $12 through each student he tutors.

Despite the difficulties, Johnson still considers himself substantially better off than his teacher-colleagues working in the Liberian countryside.

With no rural banks and roads into the Liberian interior only just being repaired after years of war and neglect, government workers frequently have long waits before they can access their earnings.

“We are living on hand-outs from students and parents,” said Samuel Leeman, a teacher in northern Nimba County – one of the hardest hit areas during the war.

“Our students and their parents are better off than us financially and they sometimes assist us with money when we meet them in the streets because there are always delays in receiving our cheques,” said Leeman. He said he traveled over 250 km to Monrovia to check on three months of back pay owed to him and is still waiting for the money.

The Civil Service Association, an umbrella organisation of government workers, has been advocating that civil servants in Liberia receive a salary of US $150 per month.

“That would greatly help us,” said Johnson. “It would encourage government employees to be committed to their jobs and minimise corruption.”

William Allen, the head of the Civil Service Agency, the government branch that oversees the public workforce, said the proposed amount of US$ 150 is unrealistic.

“If we applied this across the board, it would raise the amount paid towards wages to at least US $150 million and for this year we have only budgeted between US $120 million and US $126 million,” he said. “If we paid that, the government would run into deficits in other sectors like health, education, and road reconstruction. It could paralyse these other sectors.”

Within the same budget, however, the House of Representatives approved a new US $1,500 monthly transportation allowance for members of parliament. This has yet to be approved by the Senate.

The state is the largest single employer in Liberia. With some 85 percent of Liberians unemployed, according to United Nations estimates, many Liberians hope President Johnson-Sirleaf’s government will create jobs.

She recently told reporters that Liberians need to be patient because the country is still recovering from war. She said the Labour Ministry had launched programme in July to create short-term employment in road repair for about 50,000 Liberian youths.


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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