As UN staffers in Geneva threaten a strike, protesting a proposed salary cut of over 7.5%, a token two-hour “work stoppage” last week forced the Human Rights Council to suspend its meeting.
But there is more to come, warned Ian Richards, president of the 60,000-strong Coordinating Committee of International Staff Unions and Associations (CCISUA).
Richards told IPS that a strike would only ever be the last resort. But he accused the UN of failing to practice in its own backyard what it preaches to the rest of the world, particularly on labour and human rights.
“Had there been a proper negotiation system in place for staff to have a say in their salaries as the UN preaches to countries, we could have avoided all this.”
“Having said that,” he pointed out, “if there is no avenue for meaningful dialogue, UN staff will have no choice but to escalate their actions.” At the end of the day this isn’t about a budget cut, he noted.
Currently, the UN staff in Geneva number over 5,400 in the professional category of employees.
A resolution adopted by the Geneva staff, at an “extraordinary general meeting” early June, blamed the New York-based International Civil Service Commission (ICSC) for “failing to address the deep concerns and questions raised by staff federations and the heads of ten Geneva-based agencies over the proposed cut to post adjustment that would result in a reduction in take-home pay of 7.5% (or more)”.
The agencies based in Geneva include the International Labour Organization, the WHO, the UN Conference on Trade and Development, the World Intellectual Property Organization, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, the UN Conference on Disarmament and the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), among others.
The ICSC, which determines UN salary structures, has awarded staff in New York a pay rise of 2.2%, which they rightfully deserve, said Richards. “In the end it’s about some pushing to see what they can get away with,” he added.
The CCISUA will be joined by the 30,000-strong Federation of International Civil Servants Association in any collective action.
The Human Rights Council, the primary UN body dealing with human rights, was forced to suspend its sittings last Friday, but the Geneva staff decided not to disrupt a meeting negotiating an end to the long-drawn-out Syrian civil war which has triggered one of the world’s major humanitarian crises.
Rolando Gómez, public information officer of the Human Rights Council branch of OHCHR in Geneva confirmed to IPS about the suspension of the Human Rights Council meeting, resulting from the work stoppage.
“It was the first time such a suspension took place at the council for such a reason,” he added.
Gomez said the Human Rights Council recognises the right of UN staff to demonstrate against the proposed pay cut and did not wish to take any action that would prevent them from doing so.
“The council also reiterates its immense gratitude to UN staff at Geneva for the first-rate, indispensable assistance they provide in servicing their meetings throughout the year,” he declared.
Meanwhile, in a letter to staff unions in Geneva, Michael Møller, Director-General of the UN Office at Geneva (UNOG), said staff representatives have informed the executive heads of all Geneva-based common system organisations that they are “planning actions throughout this summer, including work stoppages” with respect to the recent decision of the ICSC on post adjustment levels in Geneva.
This is also refers to an email last week from the UNOG staff council with the heading: “Upcoming work stoppage”.
“UN Geneva recognises and respects the right of staff to freedom of association. Staff are allowed to meet on the UN Geneva premises in a non-disruptive representative manner. UN Geneva also acknowledges the dissatisfaction of staff resulting from the ISCS’s determination on post adjustment for Geneva.”
The letter further warned: “Notwithstanding the above, staff are reminded that actions which disrupt or otherwise interfere with any meeting or other official activity of the organisation, may be considered in contravention to the obligations under staff rule 1.2 (g). This includes any and all conduct which is intended, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the ability of staff or delegates to discharge their official functions.”
Based on guidance from UN headquarters (in New York), staff are also reminded that action, such as work stoppage or other collective action, may be considered as unauthorised absence in line with staff regulations and rules, the letter added.
He also said that staff should take note that discussions are still ongoing with the ICSC regarding the implementation of the post adjustment changes, “and we should all ensure that we do not to jeopardise the outcome of such discussions.”
“This is also to call on all of us to act professionally and in a manner befitting our status as international civil servants,” the letter added.
Richards told IPS: “We’re disappointed that UN management should have resorted to threatening staff.”
Asked for his comments, UN spokesperson Stephane Dujarric told reporters last week: “The guidance we have from our colleagues in Geneva is that they fully acknowledge the right of staff to freedom of association, which is a basic right. Staff were allowed to meet on the UN… on the premises in Geneva in a non disruptive manner.”
“I think our colleagues in Geneva have acknowledged the dissatisfaction of staff resulting from the issues having to do with the ICSC on post adjustments in Geneva. My understanding is that negotiations are still going on, on the implementation of these issues, but we’re all international civil servants, and we need to respect the rules,” he noted.
Richards also said that staff from organisations across Geneva took part in the work stoppage, with the aim of sending a strong message to New York management and the ICSC, that Geneva staff won’t allow their pay to be cut on the basis of absence of negotiations and numerous questions raised about the data and calculations.
“During the stoppage we held a staff meeting, attended by a large number of staff, including directors and staff from HR and security. We have a video which shows a lot of anger.”
Asked what the next step would be, Richards said, “Next steps are the report from a group of statisticians who visited the ICSC last week to check their data and calculations. The ICSC will revisit the issue in Vienna in July and we hope will change their conclusions.”
“It is important to note, he said, that this isn’t about budget cuts, as New York, where ICSC is based, recently got a 2.2% pay rise. However, the un-transparent approach used by the ICSC means that another 85 duty stations could be in line for a cut,” he added.