Lebanon’s civil servants are leaving in droves. They won't be replaced soon

The collapse of salary values has driven many skilled workers out of the public sector. But they aren’t being replaced. What’s happening on the inside, and are some vacancies more crucial than others?

Lebanon’s civil servants are leaving in droves. They won't be replaced soon

Electricité du Liban's devastated headquarters in Beirut. (Credit: Joao Sousa / L'Orient Today)

BEIRUT—“The atmosphere among the employees is terrible,” says Christine, a civil servant in a district-level office of the Interior Ministry. Her name has been changed to avoid retaliation for speaking to the press.

“In my office, we’ve reduced our schedule to one day per week. The boss has one person she relies on a lot, who works with her, but the rest don’t work” because they feel transportation to the office is unaffordable, she says.

“Of course, this delays our work. Something that used to take three days has started taking one or two weeks.”

Even the employees who make it to the office don’t stay until the end of the shift because they have to pick up their kids from school—they can’t afford to pay for school transportation to take the kids home, she says.

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The crisis afflicting Lebanon’s public sector workers is well known: their salaries are in lira, which has depreciated by more than 95 percent since the start of the country’s economic crisis, leaving them with just a fraction of their former incomes and leading to countless labor strikes.

“The public sector is not even living,” Nawal Nasr, head of the Public Administration Employee’s Union, tells L’Orient Today. This is true, she says, even in light of the 2022 budget’s measure to grant a threefold increase in public sector salaries, which isn’t enough to make up for the loss of value due to currency depreciation. In any case, the new budget has yet to be published, with fewer than two months before the year ends.

The currency crisis has caused an exodus from the ranks of the civil service, as most people with work opportunities outside the state — or the country — exit the public sector.

Meanwhile, hiring in the sector has been legally frozen since 2017, meaning that the many thousands of unemployed Lebanese forced out of the private sector amid a severe economic depression cannot find work with the state.

The result: as Lebanon enters a period of executive vacancy with no president and no cabinet, it also appears to suffer from wide-scale civil service vacancies in vital institutions.

Under the hood

From a broader perspective, it’s difficult to assess what’s happening in the public sector in real time as data is not routinely collected. Different data sources provide contradictory pictures.

The 2019 budget committed the government to conducting a comprehensive survey of the public sector. The Civil Service Board (CSB), the body in charge of administering civil service exams and creating lists of qualified job candidates, finally presented the survey to the cabinet at the end of Aug. 2022.

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The CSB survey collected data on roughly 90,700 personnel in the central government’s public administrations and public establishments, with the majority of that number, roughly 49,500, being public school teachers.

But the report’s usefulness was undermined by some 43 administrations and public establishments failing to take part in the survey.

Among the nonresponsive entities were the security forces, the behemoths of the public sector. In 2013 the Finance Ministry’s Institut des Finances Basil Fuleihan (IOF) estimated as of 2011 the government employed 101,900 military and security personnel out of a total of 170,000 people working for the central government. And according to the most recent available data from the Ministry of Finance, which ends in December 2021, military salaries made up 67 percent of all public sector salaries.

In other words, the military and security branches, which did not participate in the recent survey, likely made up more than half of public sector employees. This means that the 90,700 teachers and civil servants listed in the recent CSB survey could be less than half the total scope of government employment. Especially given that municipal employees were not part of the 2013 IOF study, and most were not counted in the 2022 CSB survey.

Meanwhile, other estimates have put the number of overall public sector workers in Lebanon much higher at 350,000.

But among the dozens of administrations and establishments that did meet their obligation to respond to the CSB survey, a notable pattern emerged of vacancies, at least on paper.

The surveyed institutions contained 28,100 established positions that are set out in their various organizational charts and staffing plans. Just under 20,000 of those positions sit vacant.

The coming months don’t bode well. The state continues, for the most part, to forbid public sector hiring. And existing staff will continue to depart the civil service with nearly 2,500 people set to reach retirement age in the coming four years.

Whose vacancies?

Lamia Moubayed, head of the IOF, says fixing the problem isn’t so simple.

She says the discussion needs to start by asking what those positions are, what purpose they serve, and whether there is even a reason to fill them in order to achieve the objectives that each administration is trying to achieve.

“The state needs to perform, to provide financial assistance, public services, infrastructure, and other benefits to its people. So why is this not the start position? Why is the start position, ‘the state doesn’t have enough manpower’?... Doesn’t have enough manpower to do what?” she asks.

Assaad Thebian, head of government transparency NGO Gherbal Initiative agrees. “Hiring is not based on qualifications. Hiring is based on sectarian allegiances and nepotism, and this is why we start with the [question]: why do they need 1,000 [in a particular directorate]? What is their job description and could this be done with 700 [people] or does it need 1,200?”

Moubayed says there is a “myth” surrounding vacancies in the civil service, many of which are a “non-issue,” for instance when the vacant job is only titularly vacant but, in reality, being performed by someone who merely lacks the formal title.

Other jobs are empty but might not be particularly useful, for instance, jobs that relate to paper-based recordkeeping or middle managers who aren’t actually needed.

The Civil Service Board’s report to the cabinet recommended cutting 7,100 positions in the civil service including large numbers of clerks.

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The freeze

The road to vacancies started being paved two years before the economic crisis.

After years of public sector labor militancy, including strikes, sit-ins, and other actions, Parliament bowed to pressure in 2017 and passed the first new public sector salary scale since 1998. The new scale increased salaries and the size of public sector pensions.

But amid rampant anxieties about the fiscal deficit, the government simultaneously raised taxes and fees to pay for the salary hike, earning an approving comment from the International Monetary Fund that the moves were, fiscally, “broadly neutral.”

Still, the IMF added that in the future personnel costs would contribute to a “further deteriorating fiscal position.”

Spending on personnel was, and remains, the government’s largest category of expenditure. The public sector wage bill was 19 percent of GDP pre-crisis, according to labor scholar Lea Bou Khater.

The government also attempted to stymy more debt by instituting a public sector hiring freeze to limit the expansion of the public sector.

That 2017 freeze is still in place.

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Nawal Nasr, head of the Public Administration Employee’s Union, says the 2017 law “comforted a large group” of public sector workers but also contained “a lot of flaws and injustices.”

In the months just before the economic crisis exploded into view, Parliament’s Finance and Budget Committee convened to combat “talk about the deficit in public finances being a result of the pay scale,” as committee chair Ibrahim Kanaan (FPM/Metn) said in May 2019.

He lamented that the pay raises were being seen as responsible for much of the grim fiscal situation in early 2019. Instead, Kanaan named another culprit: “illegal employment in large numbers” despite the hiring freeze.

It was a scandal: the committee said it had collected information from the CSB and the Central Inspection Bureau (CIB) showing around 1,500 employees had been hired since the 2017 freeze in a variety of government institutions, in clear violation of the law that the government itself had passed just a year and a half prior.

Some months later, government transparency watchdog Gherbal Initiative obtained a CIB document showing that the number of illegal hires from Aug. 2017 until Aug. 2019 amounted to 1,460, while another 404 people were legally hired under the 2017 law’s exceptions.

Five years since the freeze went into effect, Nasr says the Public Administration Employee’s Union is not calling for hiring to be reopened. They, too, are calling for administrative restructuring.

“We have establishments that don’t have a purpose … and [other] establishments that have completed their missions. All that is left in them is employees receiving money,” Nasr says. “We have employees in large numbers in positions that aren’t needed” who should be transferred to vacant posts, she adds.

Once existing employees are reassigned where they’re more needed, if the state still has human resource needs, then the door to outside hires should be reopened, according to Nasr.

Hala lwein?

One employee of the Directorate General of Personal Status in the Interior Ministry, who asked to speak anonymously because he is not authorized to talk to the press, says his office hasn’t received a new employee in five years. The department is “becoming empty” as people reach retirement and age out.

When someone reaches retirement age, they are replaced by someone who worked alongside them and is slightly younger, the employee says, but usually the replacement is only a few years away from retirement themselves.

In what he suspects is a ploy to avoid paying the full benefits associated with certain positions, people are being placed in jobs on a “temporary” basis. Temporariness can sometimes be a long-term status, he says, adding that after over a decade in the ministry he still does not benefit from social security.

“Everyone is temporarily appointed, no one is fixed [in their position] and they’re not bringing in new employees.”

Amid the drop in the value of their salaries, some colleagues are taking unpaid leaves of absence from the ministry, in which they look for other employment.

“Every time someone leaves, the rest say, ‘good for you, hopefully, I’m next,’” according to the employee.

“We’re losing the people who are able to leave,” says Nasr. The younger cohort in particular often finds it easier to emigrate than their older colleagues. “This is a great loss to the public administration. It’s necessary to retain them, it’s necessary to give them their rights to allow them and their families to live with dignity.”

She says the government is starting to feel the heat from the lack of retention in the public sector, and the need to negotiate more seriously with her union.

“It’s necessary for the state to re-open hiring,” says Jean Gibran, Director General of the Beirut Mount Lebanon Water Establishment, a grade one civil service position. “We’re missing engineers and experts and people with experience to work with us.”

Compared to the roughly 1,100 positions that the government’s National Water Strategy estimated were needed for the establishment, the establishment currently consists of just 300 employees.

Gibran says that even 1,100 would not be enough to make up for expansion in the number of customers since the ideal staffing level was penned two decades ago.

But, he adds, even if the process was re-launched, no one will enter the public sector unless salaries are updated to account for the lira’s depreciation. Indeed, people are likely to continue leaving the Beirut Mount Lebanon Water Establishment, where salaries max out around $100–150 per month.

The drain is likely more deliberate than it may seem. The government has publicly committed to what it euphemistically calls “rationalizing public sector employment with a view to improving efficiency and reducing cost” — via, among other things, keeping the hiring freeze.

This would include bringing personnel costs down to 9.1 percent of GDP, according to the 2020 Lebanese government recovery plan, which still mostly awaits implementation amid political gridlock and jockeying.

Nevertheless, the plan, which banks on a shrinking public sector due to attrition and retirement, will “yield important savings,” according to its text.

Nasr objects to the government’s portrayal of personnel costs as expenses, saying instead that they are investments in public services.

“They can’t say these are salaries and wages as though they’re distributing aid to employees. No, every employee offers many services and produces — produces money, produces services and gives life to the public administration and the nation.”

BEIRUT—“The atmosphere among the employees is terrible,” says Christine, a civil servant in a district-level office of the Interior Ministry. Her name has been changed to avoid retaliation for speaking to the press.“In my office, we’ve reduced our schedule to one day per week. The boss has one person she relies on a lot, who works with her, but the rest don’t work” because they feel...