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NUKUALOFA, Tonga (Matangi Tonga, July 1) -- The signing of two-year contracts by by 17 governmental department heads in Tonga yesterday was hailed as the first major step taken by government to implement its economic, social and public service reform program.

But at the same time, controversy is mounting over their salary rises.

‘Eseta Fusitu’a, the Chief Secretary and Secretary to Cabinet, said in her speech at a ceremony at the Dateline Hotel that the signing of working contracts between heads of departments and government was the first step taken by government to select the people who will be leading the reform on the ground.

She said that at the end of an initial two-year contract, the posts of Heads of Departments would be tendered for applicants, and the term of contract would then be for five years.

Meanwhile, there has been controversy relating to the contract scheme.

A Higher Salary Review Committee, which has over the last three months reviewed the salaries of the upper echelon of the civil service, including Cabinet Ministers, recommended a salary rise. It was essential that the funding allocation for the salary rise be passed by the House before the working contracts were signed at the start of the new financial year on July 1.

During parliamentary debates on the government’s estimated budget for 2004 to 2005, the salary rise was said to be 30 percent, and the allocation in the budget for this salary rise was $2.7 million.

Unofficially, it is said that the salary rise for some will up to 60 percent, and therefore the total amount to be allocated for a salary revision must be more than the $2.7 million that appeared in the budget.

A People’s Representative, Dr. Feleti Sevele said in the House that if the salaries of the Heads of Departments were to go up to $40,000 per annum, which is double the basic salaries of Cabinet Ministers, it was inevitable that the salaries of ministers would rise higher than that of HODs.

Another People’s Representative, ‘Isileli Pulu, said that the financing of the salary rise for HODs and Cabinet Ministers would be derived from salaries allocation to vacant posts, therefore he believed that it would cause a lot of civil servants to loose their jobs.

The Minister of Police, Honorable Clive Edwards, chairman of a Cabinet Reform Sub-Committee that was established on June 15, told the House there was a plan to implement the salary rise in increments over a period of time.

In a press conference called by the People’s Representatives from Tongatapu, Ha’apai, the Niuas and ‘Eua, they expressed frustration that the budget for 2004 to 2005 had been passed but government had not made fully known the percentage of the salary rise or the total allocation for the salary rise.

Feleti Sevele said that he heard from one of the HODs that the rise was over 60 percent.

The theory that an injection of $5 million into the struggling Tongan economy would be welcomed through these salary rises to public servants, but some of the People’s Representatives in the House argued that a salary rise for only the top minority of the public service will magnify the contrast between the haves and the have-nots in the society.

It is estimated that Tonga has about 2,000 civil servants. A total of 22 HODs were to sign the two-year working contract before the beginning of the new financial year today, and the 12 Cabinet ministers are expected to be given a salary rise almost immediately, or else the HODs will earn higher salaries than the ministers.

July 2, 2004

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