OFFICIALS from the Department of Foreign Affairs are paid significant bonuses and allowances for serving in what are known as "hardship" locations.

Mandarins working in popular tourist destinations such as Cairo, Beijing and Kuala Lumpur all receive extra pay and up to a month in extra holidays in return for working overseas in supposedly difficult conditions.

Some of the gradings however appear mystifying – Moscow, Beijing, Shanghai and Riyadh in Saudi Arabia are all given the worst possible designation.

They are ranked exactly the same as what might be considered genuinely difficult postings in Sierra Leone, Ethiopia, East Timor and Palestine.

Other cities, many of which constitute popular weekend destinations for Irish tourists, are also rated as "hardship" postings and include Riga in Latvia, the Lithuanian capital Vilnius, Tallinn in Estonia, the Bulgarian capital Sofia and Ankara in Turkey.

A spokeswoman for the Department of Foreign Affairs said: "Certain missions abroad are given a hardship designation. This designation takes account of local factors such as security, health, climate, cultural affinity and general quality of life.

"Posts are graded according to the level of hardship, ranging from Grade I [highest] to Grade 3 [lowest].

"A hardship allowance is paid, as part of the overall system of foreign service allowances, to compensate officers serving in such locations. The amount paid to an officer varies according to grade, the degree of hardship and the local cost of living."

Twenty-nine ambassadors are based in locations designated "hardship" posts, mostly in Africa, Asia and South America.

The total cost of payments made in 2008 was €274,000 and that figure is set to rise to €298,000 this year, despite cutbacks in the budget.

Departmental employees that are serving in "hardship" locations are also entitled to an extra 20 days additional annual leave per year.

The department said: "In many cases, officers do not have the opportunity to avail of this leave due to pressure of work and resource constraints. The Department of Foreign Affairs said it had conducted a review of the hardship posts with a view to making changes to the designation more flexible.

A statement said: "The new proposals include changes to the calculation of hardship allowances, a reduction in the number of posts designated as hardship, increasing the categories of hardship from the current three to five and a reduction in the additional leave allowance."

Fine Gael senator Paschal Donohue said: "At a time when families have to deal with higher taxes, the first thing we have to review is every element of government expenditure.

"I would question whether the spending of this money is justified because some of these hardship postings certainly don't seem to be as tough as they once were."

The hardship postings

Grade 1 (hardest)

Abuja, Nigeria; Addis Ababa, Ethiopia; Beijing, China; Dar es Salaam, Tanzania; Dili, East Timor; Kampala, Uganda; Lilongwe, Malawi; Lusaka, Zambia; Maputo, Mozambique; Maseru, Lesotho; Moscow, Russia; Ramallah, West Bank; Riyadh, Saudi Arabia; Shanghai, China; Freetown, Sierra Leone;

Tehran, Iran

Grade 2:?Brasilia, Brazil; Bucharest, Romania; Cairo, Egypt; Hanoi, Vietnam; Mexico City, Mexico; New Delhi, India; Pretoria, South Africa; Sofia, Bulgaria; Tel Aviv, Israel

Grade 3:?Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia; Ankara, Turkey; Riga, Latvia; Seoul, South Korea; Singapore, Singapore; Tallinn, Estonia; Vilnius, Lithuania