If civil service faces cut, give it union-style rights: Watanabe

by Hiroko Nakata

The civil service needs to adopt private-sector labor-management relations so the government can propose wage and job cuts while public servants can counter with collective-bargaining, newly appointed administrative reform minister Yoshimi Watanabe said Thursday.

Calling such a relationship the first step to speed up reforms of the civil service, Watanabe, an outspoken Liberal Democratic Party lawmaker, argued that public servants must brace for future restructuring but be armed with basic labor rights, including collective-bargaining and the right to strike.

“I think it’s necessary to give them the rights in one package” together with an evaluation system for public servants, Watanabe said in an interview.

As part of efforts to increase efficiency, the government has discussed for years how best to evaluate public servants based on their ability and achievements, Watanabe said. But a big problem has been that they don’t have labor rights, he added.

Under the current system, public servants are guaranteed employment until retirement age and their salary is fixed according to their rank. Given such protection, it is difficult to slash their ranks or pay even though the government’s fiscal situation is worsening.

Administrative reform has been a major priority of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his predecessor, Junichiro Koizumi. But the government has failed to carry out drastic restructuring, drawing fire from bureaucrats who call such steps one-sided.

Watanabe said he has asked a government panel to file an interim report in April on the extent to which government employees can hold labor rights compared with private-sector employees, he said.

He also said the government will eventually have to streamline ministries and agencies again on top of the last restructuring in 2001.

Watanabe meanwhile said he is willing to prepare a bill to toughen rules on “amakudari” — the practice by companies and semigovernment entities of hiring retired bureaucrats in business sectors they had overseen.

Reform of the public servant system is expected to be one of three major focuses of Diet debate after it reconvenes on Jan. 25, along with reforms of the social welfare and education systems.

Watanabe assumed his Cabinet post after his predecessor, Genichiro Sata, resigned late last month after admitting accounting irregularities by one of his political support organizations. The scandal dealt another blow to Abe’s Cabinet following the earlier resignation of his appointed government tax panel chief, Masaaki Honma.

Soon after he appointed Watanabe as administrative reform minister, Abe said: “Above all, he has the power to break through (the logjam), and that power is necessary to carry out administrative reforms.”

Watanabe had responded by saying he took Abe’s words as meaning he has “the physical power, the mental power and the power to be patient.”

Watanabe and Abe have similar family backgrounds. Their fathers, Michio Watanabe and Shintaro Abe, both served as foreign ministers.

Michio Watanabe died in 1995 at age 72, and Shintaro Abe died in 1991 at age 67. In 1996, Yoshimi was elected to serve the Tochigi No. 3 electoral district, his family’s home constituency.