Paychecks Aplenty as Ghosts Haunt Cambodia's Lax Bureaucracy

By Prak Chan Thul 24 July 2015

PHNOM PENH — Borith has been on the payroll of Cambodia’s parliament for 15 years but rarely shows up for work. He is busy with his other job at a non-governmental organisation, and no one notices his absence.

It’s a cushy deal that’s common in Cambodia. Ghost workers are haunting its civil service, sapping taxpayers’ money with jobs they don’t actually do, or by pocketing salaries paid to people who don’t even exist.

“There are just names of people who work at the National Assembly, but there’s no work to do,” said Borith, who declined to be identified by his full name to avoid jeopardizing his $300 a month parliament salary.

“When anyone tries to address the problem, people show up for a week or two, then just stop going.”

The problem goes to the heart of Cambodia’s 400,000-strong bureaucracy, according to the head of the Independent Civil Servants Association, Kao Poeun, who estimates thousands are playing the ghost game.

It is another layer of graft entrenched by slipshod oversight in a country that is otherwise an economic success story, having transformed in two decades from a conflict-torn basket case to a promising frontier market.

“This whole system is akin to what happened in the waning days of the Soviet Union,” said author and Cambodian politics expert, Sophal Ear of Occidental College in Los Angeles.

“It’s like ‘you pretend to pay me, and I pretend to work’.”

Reuters interviewed five people who admitted to being just names on a payroll. One man, who requested anonymity, said he earned $150 a month at the Interior Ministry and had two other jobs, including his own private security firm.

“In the morning, I work at my company and in the afternoon, I go to the ministry to clock-in,” he said. “We can’t live on those salaries alone.”

Son Chhay, a lawmaker who grew up in Australia and is vice chairman of parliament’s financial commission, is disgusted by the practice.

He is on a one-man crusade to expose bogus bureaucrats in the legislature and estimates 800 of the 1,335 employed there are no-shows.

But he admits his campaign against wastefulness and nepotism is going nowhere without political will for a cleanup.

A recent truce between the two main rival political parties, he says, means no one wants to rock the boat, or risk losing votes by targeting civil servants before a 2018 election expected to be Cambodia’s closest in decades.

“Corruption runs too deeply,” he said. “Parliament has a duty to monitor the work of the government and when it’s smelly and rotten like this, Cambodia faces hardship.”

Son Chhay’s investigation into parliamentary expenditure details family members of politicians paid as “advisers”, and what he considers dubious spending, like a $600,000 per year Internet subscription, flagpoles costing $35,000 each, 30 imported vehicles priced at $300,000 apiece and lawmakers’ annual overseas travel spending of $11.5 million.

There is even a Xerox machine declared at $35,000—roughly the price of a new BMW X3.

Though he has yet to present his findings to parliament, he says he is not confident things will change.

“It’s not achieved much,” he said of his campaign. “I just want more people to join the call to fight this. If we stay quiet, it will cause destruction to us all.”

Chheang Vun, a lawmaker with the ruling Cambodian People’s Party, said Son Chhay publicizing his findings was “street talk” that should have been kept internal.

Prime Minister Hun Sen has said good governance is “a life or death matter” for Cambodia, but beyond a new drive to pay civil servants via banks rather than in cash, there is little sign of impetus from his government to tackle ghost workers.

Cambodia’s anti-graft unit chief, Om Yentieng, said the problem festered because anti-corruption legislation was only introduced in 2010, after 15 years of drafting.

“We need more time for people to change,” he said. “It won’t be easy like some people say.”