Editorial | The difficult case of treating a bloated public sector

Rather than being made redundant, the unneeded employees can be offered some form of financial incentive to find employment in the private sector


Chamber of Commerce President Marisa Xuereb is making a strong case for downsizing the public sector.

She argues that a reduced public sector will help cut down the government’s payroll thus freeing up financial resources to continue offering essential services. It also helps free up human resources, which the private sector is hungry for.

The public sector employs around 50,000 people and this includes the civil service and all government entities.

Xuereb is not naïve and admits that any downsizing of the public sector is a political minefield. But expecting this government, or any other government for that matter, to follow through with such a proposal is like dropping a coin down a wishing well and expecting miracles.

Government has always fended off criticism that the public sector is bloated by saying that the number of workers on the public payroll as a percentage of the Maltese workforce has remained relatively stable.

This means that the public service has grown in tandem with the increase in the gainfully employed workforce as a result of economic growth.

However, this argument is too simplistic. There is no doubt that there are public services where government has had to employ more workers and continues to need more employees.

The increase in health services offered at hospital has necessitated more health professionals. The education sector is another area where more employees are required. The same can be said for the police force.

But there are many other areas where staff have been employed simply because of political exigencies. This is not a malaise that started in 2013.

Every government has used jobs in the public service to award loyalty and keep disgruntled constituents happy. In Gozo, this problem is more acute than anywhere else with private companies saying that government is a direct competitor for workers even if the actual need to put people on the public payroll is questionable.

Air Malta is another classic example of unnecessary government largesse. The national airline has been used since its inception to employ people close to the party in government. The result is there for all to see today as government struggles to keep the airline afloat, while trying to find expensive solutions to downsize the bloated workforce.

Calling for the downsizing of the public sector is a reasonable expectation but one that will not be realisable within Malta’s polarised duopolistic climate.

When government did put its foot down at Air Malta and axed pilots who refused to go on the COVID wage supplement during the pandemic, the disgruntled employees found solace in the Opposition. And here we are only talking about 60 people or so, let alone thousands.

Despite the political difficulty to downsize the public sector, government should not shy away from undertaking a human resource audit of its departments, agencies, foundations and companies in which it has a majority shareholding. Such an exercise will help identify the required staffing levels to maintain adequate service levels and provide a clear picture of where the access staff are.

These can then be redeployed – if possible – to those areas where staffing levels are low or enticed to find a job in the private sector. Rather than being made redundant, the unneeded employees can be offered some form of financial incentive to find employment in the private sector.

However, if this proves impossible or unfeasible – one cannot underestimate the strength of union power in the public sector – at a minimum, government can freeze employment across the board except for crucial sectors and particular posts.

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