Poll: Should Embassy Personnel in Phnom Penh Receive Hardship Pay?May 8, 2012
Our last poll about embassy personnel in Cambodia dealt with the thorny question of whether embassy dudes should hang out in hostess bars. An overwhelming 62% percent of you voted no. Unfortunately, no one really listens to Khmer440 readers. So as far as I know, embassy personnel in Phnom Penh are still allowed to grope hookers in sleazy bars, but they are expected to use their expert judgment in not letting things get out of hand. Just like Secret Service agents.
In this month’s poll, we turn our attention to the compensation that embassy workers receive. Because I am American, My focus will once again be on U.S. embassy personnel.
Believe it or not, I once considered becoming a U.S. Foreign Service Officer. True story. Back in 2004, I actually took the Foreign Service written exam. No, I did not wear an eye patch, and the experience was nothing like that scene in Spies Like Us.
I recall being crammed into a classroom at the local university with a lot of other test takers who definitely did not look like spy material. I answered a bunch of multiple choice questions about American presidents, the U.S. Constitution, and world geography. Because standardized tests are often criticized in the U.S. as being “racially biased,” they also threw in a couple of token questions about jazz history to balance things out.
I passed the written exam, and then I was scheduled to take the “oral assessment” about six months later in San Francisco. Apparently, this “oral assessment” would have involved me participating in group exercises with other applicants and being evaluated on how well I related to other human beings. Obviously, I would have failed that portion of the exam miserably. So I cancelled that appointment. Thus ended my opportunity to actually get paid to live in exotic foreign countries and grope hookers in sleazy bars.
It is well known that U.S. embassy workers assigned to posts abroad receive a decent salary, housing allowance, and generous government benefits. But the ones assigned to undesirable locations, where conditions of environment differ substantially from conditions in the U.S., also receive extra “hardship pay.” This hardship pay bonus can be anywhere between 5% and 35% of the employee’s regular pay, based on a sliding scale of shittiness.
So let’s look at the nifty chart in which Uncle Sam rates the hardship of living in different cities around the world. You’ll see that if you’re assigned to a “first world” city like Montreal, Stockholm, Buenos Aires, or Melbourne, you get no hardship bonus at all. 0%. That’s fair.
But you know where else you would get 0%? Tangier, Morocco and San Jose, Costa Rica. That’s ridiculous. Have the State Department accounting people never been to these places? These cities are shitholes. OK, I haven’t been to Tangier in over twenty years, but I doubt that it has changed much from the smelly sausagefest of touts and pickpockets that I remember.
And San Jose, let’s just say that Eric Cartman was right about the place. Sure, there are a few decent bars in San Jose, but they are all full of 40 year-old hookers and elderly, mustachioed Texans who loudly call the bar staff “SEEN-yor-EEEEE-ta.” I like cheap beer and filth and loose women as much as anyone, but even I couldn’t stand more than three nights in San Jose.
So you may be wondering: where do you have to go to get the full 35% hardship bonus? Apparently, you have to be assigned to one of four countries – Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, or Libya. That’s reasonable. Living in these four hellholes is undoubtedly a real hardship. I have no problem with Uncle Sam using my tax money to bump a civil servant’s salary from $50,000 a year to $67,500, and then telling him “enjoy your two year stint in Peshawar.”
What fascinates me though is how they rate all of the other locations in the 5% – 30% hardship range. The embassy personnel in Phnom Penh get a whopping 25% hardship bonus. That’s more money than people get for serving in the rather undesirable locales of Johannesburg (10%) Guatemala City (15%), Algiers (20%), and Riyadh (20%). And it’s the same 25% hardship pay given to embassy staffers stuck in the exceptionally crappy capitals of Nigeria, Mali, Mauritania, Angola, and South Sudan.
So how did the State Department decide on 25% for Phnom Penh? Well, according to State Department guidelines, “Hardship differential is established for any place when, and only when, the place involves extraordinarily difficult living conditions, excessive physical hardship, or notably unhealthful conditions affecting the majority of employees officially stationed or detailed at that place.”
What are the “extraordinarily difficult living conditions” facing U.S. embassy workers in Phnom Penh? I don’t know. Is it because Star World waits and shows American Idol on a four hour delay? Is it because the air conditioning in Freebird can sometimes be a bit nippy?
And what are the “notably unhealthful conditions” in Phnom Penh affecting the majority of embassy personnel? Gonorrhea outbreaks? Cirrhosis of the liver? I certainly can’t think of any “excessive physical hardships” facing foreigners in Phnom Penh, except for the slight risk of getting shot in the ass if you pound on cars while stumbling home drunk from Street 51.
Remember, American embassy personnel in Phnom Penh also get the benefit of working in a beautiful, new state-of-the-art building, spending their days in air-conditioned comfort shouting other people’s personal information at them from behind a glass partition. What could be better than that? Oh, right, the twenty Cambodian holidays each year when they don’t have to work at all.
But here’s the best evidence that there is no “hardship” for Western embassy personnel living in Phnom Penh. Hundreds of Westerners are voluntarily moving to Phnom Penh every single month, for absolutely no reason at all. Many of them are unemployed and have no job prospects, they are just moving to Phnom Penh because they’ve heard that it’s a fun and enjoyable place to live. I’ll bet that there are at least two truck loads of bald, tattooed Englishmen on the way from Pattaya right now.
Let’s think about how many Westerners settled in Nouakchott, Mauritania last month, who weren’t obligated to do so by their employers or kidnapped and taken there by local Islamist militants. None. That should tell you something. And there are reasons why Algiers and Riyadh haven’t made anyone’s list of Top Twenty Places to Emigrate for Young People.
Paying the same 25% hardship pay for embassy personnel to work in Phnom Penh that they would earn in Nouakchott and Juba makes absolutely no sense at all. It’s a total waste of taxpayer money, money that could be much better spent on strippers and cocaine at GSA conferences in Las Vegas.
Anyway, that’s just my personal opinion on the subject. Please feel free to vote in the poll below and leave a comment.