President Abdulla Yameen’s threats against striking civil servants has enraged human rights advocates and opposition parties, who have described the warning as high-handed and yet another example of a deepening crackdown on civil rights.
Yameen, who has previously banned street protests and jailed several opposition leaders, threatened last night to cut pay “and other things” in a warning to hundreds of staff at the ministry of finance and treasury who had stopped work on Tuesday over impending jobs cuts.
He condemned the protesting staff for choosing the “hardest path to secure rights” and for protesting “over everything.” No civil servant can choose which government ministry they want to work at, he said. “No government employee should tell me, “I will work at this office’ … the government will decide that.”
Yameen’s comments have caused outrage, with the president’s own nephew, lawyer Maumoon Hameed, tweeting articles of the constitution that enshrine the right to strike, and reminding the state of its duty to enforce the constitution.
“No sanctions may be imposed for exercise of a constitutional right,” he said.
Ahmed Tholal, former vice president of the human rights commission, said Yameen’s threats were “unbecoming of a president.”
Contrary to Yameen’s portrayal of protesting staff as unruly, Tholal said they had chosen to strike because the mass job cuts were to take place “without proper consultation and with very little information which has contributed to a high level of trauma.”
The government, however, is now insisting it never intended to fire any employee, but was only planning to transfer them to other ministries.
But multiple sources who wished to remain anonymous have told The Maldives Independent that the president’s office had sent a letter to the ministry’s top civil servant Ismail Ali Manik ordering him fire more than 70 staff and dissolve several crucial departments including the budget, economic planning an and internal audit departments.
Manik, who resigned last week, has declined to comment. But his resignation is widely seen as a protest against the job cuts. Many have also pointed to Yameen’s recent comments on the need to downsize an “overstaffed” civil service as a sign that the government had initially intended to fire employees.
Protesting staff have told The Maldives Independent that they went on strike only after discussions with the Civil Service Commission yielded no clarity. The independent commission reportedly told them it had no information of the dismissals. The CSC has declined to answer inquiries by the press over the past week.
The strike is only the second by civil servants in recent history.
Tholal said the finance staff had every right to protest given the sudden and unprecedented nature of the cuts.
“Not knowing if any evaluation will take place to determine who will be let go has built up frustration of having to wait this out without any real information. The government was vague at best and silent at worst. So to say they were protesting over nothing and to threaten them with other ambiguous measures seem very childish.”
He went on to call the CSC’s silence appalling.
The main opposition Maldivian Democratic Party has urged Yameen not to overstep his mandate and dictate how the CSC must act. “Our fear here is that we are reverting to the arbitrary processes that existed prior to the ratification of the 2008 constitution, where a department at the president’s office, as desired by the president, would hire and fire employees.”
The CSC was set up in 2008 and its members are appointed through the parliament rather than the executive to minimise the president’s influence over the bureaucracy.
The MDP has also called on the CSC to defend the rights of the finance ministry staff and to take independent decisions in the matter.
More than a hundred staff at the finance ministry have submitted a petition to the CSC yesterday, urging it to conduct a transparent human resources audit before making cuts, and to be mindful of the individual employees’ careers as well as the government’s obligations to the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.
The petition also urged the CSC to provide clarity on the matter.
Ibrahim Ameer, an economist, has said the firing of over 70 technical staff, “will contribute to the overall erosion of fiscal discipline. This can only mean that the government is paving way for the implementation of reckless economic policies without having to consult with technical people.”
Former Economic Minister Mahmood Raazee said Yameen’s actions was part of a concerted effort to undermine institutions of the state. “As you can see, the government has decided to dissolve and restructure technical departments of the Finance ministry tasked with overseeing whether policies meet fiscal responsibility standards.”
The civil service, which employs more than 20,000 people needs to be downsized, he said. But “there must be a long term policy to decrease the number of civil servants, a policy that will ensure the employees are given fair chances.
“During MDP’s time in power we offered financial aid packages for civil servants for voluntary resignation. You cannot just wake up one fine day and order the dismissal of over 70 employees.”
Since a large portion of the annual state budget is spent on paying salaries and allowances civil servants, successive governments have spoken of the need for rightsizing the public sector to rein in a ballooning budget deficit.
The religious conservative Adhaalath Party has meanwhile called on Yameen to decrease political appointees instead of dismissing civil servants.
“The government’s claim that the only avenue to hike pay for civil servants is to reduce the size of the civil service is unacceptable to the Adhaalath Party. Instead, the government must put an end to corruption and end the practice of appointing political appointees.”
The party’s call to end corruption refers to the fact that Yameen’s former deputy Ahmed Adeeb is being prosecuted for missing payments from resort leases – thought to run into the tens of millions.
Yameen’s administration has also been criticised over the high number of political appointees. There are some 682 political appointees in the executive branch.
One senior staff at the finance ministry said there are two advisors to the minister and some deputy ministers whose duties are not clear to anyone at the ministry.
Additional writing by Zaheena Rasheed. Additional reporting by Mohamed Saif Fathih.
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