Geneva Staff Battles UN Chief over Unequal Pay & Illegal Salary Cuts

Credit: United Nations

By Thalif Deen
UNITED NATIONS, Jan 20 2020 – As the United Nations commemorates its 75th anniversary this year, the financially-crippled Organization is also saddled with a rash of administrative problems, plus an ongoing cash crisis, perhaps one of the worst in history.

At a town hall meeting with Secretary-General Antonio Guterres last month, UN staffers in Geneva, led by the Staff Coordinating Council (SCC), raised several issues, including the impact of the illegal pay cut on incomes, family life, and staff morale, and the growing number of obstacles to career development.

And they also singled out the harassment and retaliation against whistle blowers, (with harassments apparently going unpunished); the “exploitation” of colleagues on temporary and consultancy contracts; “management abuse” of rules under the new delegation of authority; and the negative impact of administrative offshoring and plans for hot-desking.

And that’s only for starters.

Guterres initially “refused to meet staffers”, according to a message from SCC. The request for a meeting was made when the Secretary-General was in Geneva on Dec 4.

Reacting to the refusal, the SCC pointedly said the welfare of staff should be a prime concern for any organization.

“It’s clear from the huge number of stories we’ve received and responses to our survey that UN Geneva staff are not just angry and disaffected at the injustice of the illegal pay cut they have suffered, there have also been significant consequences for the lives of many of their families.”

“Any decent employer (read: United Nations) should want to listen to the views of their staff, however challenging. Trying to ignore such opinions and experiences hurts employees and is damaging for the wider organization, and that’s just part of why we were so disappointed to learn of the Secretary General’s refusal to meet with UN Geneva staff on the topic of equal pay”, the SCC said.

“This was a missed opportunity, but it is far from the end of the matter. The Staff Council doesn’t take no for an answer”—and it eventually pulled it off.

Perhaps reacting to the SCC attack on him, Guterres agreed to address the town hall meeting during his second visit to Geneva on December 16.

But the SCC said the Secretary General’s response for equal pay was “significant”. Guterres told staffers: “Equal pay is obviously a norm that should be respected everywhere”

“I fully understand that this system of unequal pay is unacceptable and it will have to be solved. I will do everything I can for that to happen. I fully understand how angry you are with this situation that is unfair and I’m interested in solving it,” Guterres added, according to SCC.

The SCC also said: “These are encouraging words and we will hold him to them. Whilst such a commitment is a notable step forward for our campaign, we remain concerned as he also refused to take immediate action to resolve the situation by adding: “I don’t have the power to do what you ask me to do.”

A big test will come when the UN Dispute Tribunal delivers their ruling on the issue. “We are confident they will find in favour of equal pay and, given the Secretary General’s words, staff will expect him to accept the decision and not lodge any appeal”.

“In the meantime, we will watch every move and keep up the pressure, not just on equal pay, but on the other issues that we raised and which he acknowledged,” said Prisca Chaoui, SCC Executive Secretary and Ian Richards, President.

The UN Office at Geneva (UNOG) says it serves as the representative office of the Secretary-General in Geneva, which also houses the Human Rights Council and UN agencies such as the World Health Organization (WHO) and the International Labour Organization.

A focal point for multilateral diplomacy, UNOG services more than 10,000 meetings every year, making it one of the world’s busiest conference centres. And with more than 1,600 staff, it is the biggest duty stations outside of United Nations headquarters in New York.

Asked about the impact of the cash crunch on UN staffers, Ian Richards, who is also the Geneva-based President of the 60,000-strong Coordinating Committee of International Staff Unions and Associations (CCISUA), told IPS the General Assembly has ordered that a certain number of posts be kept vacant at any time.

“This basically has the effect of a promotion-and-recruitment freeze despite workload on the rise and the growing dangers for staff in places like Iraq and Afghanistan”.

“Staff are not happy,” he added.

Asked if the UN is in the process of eliminating short term and consultancy contracts, and also replacing overseas assignments with teleconferencing as spelled out by Guterres, Richards said these are being used much less on the regular budget, which has implications for impacted personnel.

Teleconferencing has always been there, he noted, but there are limits to its usefulness.

“You can’t conduct an investigation or research mission on the other side of the world by teleconference. And sometimes you need to get key people around the table for a solid 3 days if you want to solve a particularly complex problem”.

“You can’t do that by teleconference when people are scattered across time zones,” he declared.

Asked if regular staffers are assured of permanent stay in New York or is it mandatory for them to serve in overseas posts, Richards said the “mobility policy” is currently suspended, pending a new one.

The suspended policy turned out to be cumbersome to administer. He argued that something more simple and less top-down is required while providing staff a reassurance that if they go to the field, their service will be recognized and they have a way back to headquarters, he added.

Meanwhile, the General Assembly has postponed until spring a proposal to move some of the UN offices to Budapest, Kuala Lumpur, Mexico City and Nairobi.

“It’s been under consideration for several years and hasn’t got anywhere,” said Richards, pointing out that, ultimately, it’s not a financially viable project and many managers and member states know this.

“And as the UN’s administrative systems become ever more technology-based, the usefulness of physical service centres goes out the window. We’re in 2020 now, not 2005,” said Richards.

The writer can be contacted at thalifdeen@ips.org

UN Special Rapporteur Offers Assistance to Indian Supreme Court in Case of Rohingya Deportation

The United Nations on Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance has recently offered her assistance to the Indian Supreme Court in a long hearing about India deporting Rohingya refugees to Myanmar. Pictured here are Rohingya refugee women in Jammu, India. Credit: Stella Paul/IPS

By Samira Sadeque
UNITED NATIONS, Jan 20 2020 – University of California professor E. Tendayi Achiume, who is a United Nations Special Rapporteur, has recently offered her assistance to the Indian Supreme Court in a long hearing about India deporting Rohingya refugees to Myanmar.

The hearing, which began in 2017, has this update at a crucial time when the world’s largest democracy is reeling from citizenship rulings that explicitly exclude Muslims from certain neighbouring countries. 

Achiume, who is a U.N. Special Rapporteur on Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance, submitted the application to the Supreme Court on Jan. 10, according to local news agency The Wire

“Litigation schedules are long and complex, and the timing of my filing reflects that,” Achiume told IPS this week, in reference to why she made her application at this time. 

According to the Wire, which reviewed the application, Achiume did so in order to “aid the court in upholding India’s obligations under various international law instruments and principles to which it has committed”. 

  • India, although not the most common destination for Rohingya refugees, has a large number of the population, many of whom migrate from neighbouring Bangladesh.
  • At the time of reporting, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) had documented 17,911 Rohingyas in India as registered with the organisation. 

In 2017, when the hearing began, the Indian government, responsible for the current crisis in Kashmir as well as the Citizenship Amendment Act, told the court that Rohingyas pose “a threat to national security”. 

Two years later, this sentiment remains relevant given the recent citizenship ruling as well as the crisis in Kashmir have stoked further anti-Muslim rhetoric in India. In the past, Indian Home Minister Amit Shah has used similar rhetoric of “threat” to national security against Bangladeshi immigrants in the country.  

Last week, at the launch of 2020 World Report Human Rights Watch (HRW), the organisation’s head reiterated that the current rulings in the country are discriminatory. 

“We are extremely concerned about the anti-Muslim drift by the Modi government,” Kenneth Roth told IPS at the launch where he also blasted Aung San Suu Kyi for her defence of Myanmar’s practices against the Rohingya population in the country.  

While the recent rulings do not directly affect Rohingyas from Myanmar, the current anti-Muslim sentiment heightened by these rulings adds another layer of complication for a community that is known to be largely Muslim and has their share of challenges already. 

As it is, the Rohingya community already is vulnerable to discrimination in India. India’s decision to deport Rohingyas “raises critical issues as to its compatibility with these instruments and principles of international human rights law,” Achiume wrote in the application. 

“In India, Rohingya face protection risks due to difficulties in obtaining legal documentation and access to basic services,” Kathryn Mahoney, Senior Communications Officer at UNHCR told IPS. “UNHCR is also aware of instances of arrest and detention of Rohingya refugees and asylum-seekers at the border.” 

This already festering sentiment against the Rohingya, when viewed under current circumstances, can prove grave for the community. 

“I believe there is strong reason to believe there are heightened concerns for Rohingya and others in the current legal and political climate that is fostering intolerance and discrimination against Muslims,” Achiume told IPS. “India’s judiciary has an important role to play in upholding the country’s human rights commitments.” 

In their statement to IPS, UNHCR reiterated the urgency with which forced repatriation efforts by India must be stopped for the Rohingya community that still remains vulnerable to violence and displacement in Myanmar. 

“UNHCR is deeply concerned by the return of Rohingya asylum-seekers from India to Myanmar, who may be at risk of serious human rights violations or persecution,” Mahoney told IPS. “UNHCR does not believe that current conditions in Myanmar are conducive to the safe and dignified repatriation of Rohingya refugees.” 

Pro-Growth Demographic Dogma

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