Recruiters at the Chinese Ministry of Commerce used to sit back and watch applicants, lured by all the perks, fall over each other, but nowadays the nation’s top agency responsible for international trade and business is seeing a growing number of cadres and civil servants getting off the “gravy train.”

Low remuneration and the lack of a sense of achievement are blamed for the wave of exits by employees, state media said, citing a warning from the State Administration of Civil Service and the Communist Party’s Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, in a rare admission of the high staff turnover at the ministry.

The party’s disciplinary watchdog had just wrapped up an inspection of the ministry.

“Daily supervision of [staff recruitment] was weak and the turnover rate was too high,” said the warning.

“Some of my colleagues left because the salary in the ministry was just not that decent,” an official with the ministry told the Global Times on condition of anonymity. “We are always on standby and often work overtime but there is no or very little overtime pay.”

The baseline salary of a clerk at the ministry is about 8,000 yuan (US$1,170) per month.

The still-unfolding trade row with the US is said to be accelerating the exodus, as researchers, negotiators and senior clerks at the ministry are seeing a spike in their workloads along with their stress levels.

“At night, the lights in the ministry’s complex located in Beijing’s bustling Chang’an Avenue can be an indicator of the state of China’s international trade,” said another employee of the ministry. “When more lights are on, more people are working overtime, and that surely means there are troubles in foreign trade.”

Since the outbreak of the trade row with the US, the employee said, “Minister of Commerce Zhong Shan and other senior officials are working around the clock to tackle additional tariffs slapped on Chinese exports while formulating countermeasures, and staff at different departments have been feeling the strain.”

The ministry, together with its pyramid of affiliated institutes and associations as well as branches in provinces and municipalities across the country, maintains a 25,000-strong staff.

More than 10,000 government workers quit their jobs in the central government and ministries within three weeks after the Chinese New Year this February, representing a jump of 34% over the same period last year, according to a survey by Chinese job-search website Zhilian Recruitment.

China’s public sector used to be called the “iron rice bowl” because of job security and social status, but for many these days, private-sector jobs, particularly in real estate and the Internet-related and finance industries, are more attractive.

In May last year, Beijing gazetted a notice banning any senior cadre who had just quit his job from joining a private company that was under the direct oversight of his or her former employer, for a period of no less than three years, to avoid graft and conflict of interest.