Are 9-to-5 Jobs Fast Becoming History – Even at the UN?

UN Staffers with Secretary-General Antonio Guterres

By Thalif Deen
UNITED NATIONS, Sep 6 2019 – With the rapid leap in digital technology – including increased access to conference calls, e-translations, skype, text messaging and emails—more and more offices in the United States are providing employees with an option to “work from home”.

The new concept was frivolously illustrated in a recent cartoon in the Wall Street Journal where the waiter at a restaurant tells an impatient customer: “Your order will be up in another 45 minutes. Our chef is working from home today.”

The option to work “from another location” – euphemism for working from home—has now spread to the United Nations where it is categorized as “flexible working arrangements”—and described in official circulars either as “staggered working hours”, “compressed work schedule”, “working away from office” or “alternate work place” .

Ian Richards, President of the 60,000-strong Coordinating Committee of International Staff Unions and Associations (CCISUA), told IPS “home-working can be a great way to find focus and concentration, and avoid the stress of the daily commute. However, experience shows it is best kept within reasonable limits”.

With home-workers fearful of colleagues’ suspicions about their work activities, many have reported it harder to define the start and end of the work day, and separate their private and work lives, he said.

He pointed out that some also feel pressured to work when ill and make use of sick leave. Lack of interaction at the office means they are less aware of developments at work and more likely to miss out on career advancement, Richards argued.

A recent circular by the UN Under-Secretary-General for Management Strategy, Policy and Compliance, says “the normal working week is subject to exceptions when staff members have been authorized to avail themselves of flexible working arrangements, in accordance with the Secretary-General’s bulletin on flexible working arrangements.” (ST/SGB/2019/3)

The new working arrangements have been prompted primarily by a shortage of work space in the 38-storeyed UN Secretariat building which houses more than 2,000 staffers. ST/IC/2019/15

And more so, by the UN opting out of renewing leases on several rented offices in the neighborhood – due to a growing cash crunch — and thereby forced to re-locate staffers to an already over-crowded Secretariat.

More worryingly, said Richards, the organization has been known to refuse cover for work-related accidents at home. And in times of tight budgets, some managers have argued that those who work extensively from home could be replaced by consultants.

At the same time, supervisors who work from home when not travelling are less able to supervise.

“For this reason, no-one should be pushed to work from home and neither should it function as a pressure valve for the UN’s inability to provide staff with an office and a serene work environment,” he declared.

A UN staffer told IPS that not only are they given the option to work from home— “maximum of three days during the work week” – but also, in some cases, “forcing” staffers to do so, much against their wishes.

Credit: UN

Currently, some UN offices do not have even designated work spaces which are now doled out on a first-come, first-served basis.

“I was working on my desktop computer when I was summoned to an office meeting,” one staffer recounted, “but when I got back an hour later, my computer and my desk had been taken over by another staffer— leaving me stranded momentarily while I had to hunt for another work space.”

Samir Sanbar, a former UN Assistant Secretary-General and head of the Department of Public Information, told IPS it will be interesting to find out who precisely prepared that circular; certainly not someone with a credible U.N. record.

There may be financial reasons to save cash on non-renewal of rentals. “Yet it seems like an attempt to display an emerging work practice more attuned to market business than the U.N. spirit. It would erode further the credibility of a dedicated international civil service,” he noted.

“During my tenure, we spent more time at the office than at home. I recall leaving the Secretariat building one evening, after meetings with colleagues, to discover it was 11 p.m. Working at home meant at weekends or during holidays”, he said.

“Once when the Secretary General called while I was in Southampton, continuing the discussion meant returning immediately to the building”, said Sanbar, who worked under five different Secretaries-General during his tenure at the UN.

“Working for the United Nations is not like in a business enterprise or government post. In my belief, that means being seen there — whether at headquarters or in the field.”

Drawn from equitable cultural and geographic backgrounds, dedicated staff displayed human dignity, almost pride, in observed productive work, he noted.

A visible presence openly confirmed a central relevance, said Sanbar. Lack of visibility would undercut its perception and play into the determination to erode further the role of its challenged leadership.

Iftikhar Ali, a former UN staffer who worked as Director of UNIC in Tehran (1994 to 2000) and in UNMIK’s Public Information Department in Kosovo (2001 to 2003), told IPS there are both pros and cons in the current flexible working arrangements.

Some American and European companies have been successful in letting their workers operate from their homes, and in most cases, it has improved efficiency.

“But I don’t know how it will work for the UN. After all, the UN is not a company selling goods or services; it is an international organization struggling to achieve higher goals: world peace, security and economic development that would benefit all,” he said.

To promote those ideals, UN staffers must remain dedicated and work together to meet those tasks, however difficult.

In this regard, he noted, UN staffers need to interact with each other more closely and also with representatives of member states.

“Therefore, the best places to develop and remain imbued with the spirit and dedication to serve the cause of peace are the UN offices and complexes where staffers meet each other face-to-face.”

Staying away from the places of work, he pointed out, would gradually erode those linkages and their international outlook, thus weakening the peace movement.

“The atmosphere at home, with lots of distractions, is not very conducive to building global mindset. The UN carries ideas, not cargo,” said Ali.

The writer can be contacted at

Domestic violence: Still a formidable challenge


By Talisha Faruk
Sep 6 2019 (IPS-Partners)

After a week’s absence, Nazma entered the house with a lacklustre expression spread across her normally cheerful demeanour, with the slack of her sari pulled low over her face. When questioned in regards to her absence, while hesitant at first, she later revealed that she had been repeatedly threatened, forced to have sexual intercourse, and consequently suffered a miscarriage.

A few weeks prior to Nazma’s revelation, I learned about a friend’s divorce from her longstanding abusive husband. While I was elated at the news that my friend was finally free from the reigns of domestic violence, she revealed how her divorce, instead of securing a life of freedom, had instead thrown her into a custody battle over her only child and had caused further suffering as a result of constant threats from her ex-husband and his family. When the fights became unbearable, my friend turned to both the police as well as her family and received the same dire response: “These things happen in a marriage. Learn to compromise.”

Domestic violence remains an issue irrespective of socioeconomic status in Bangladesh. I hear the same outcry for help from Nazma, whose spouse works as a rickshaw-puller, as I do from a friend, whose former spouse owns a thriving garments company in Bangladesh. This is an issue, which holds no bias.

Violence against women is one of most rampant human rights violations worldwide, and is further exacerbated by unequal power dynamics between women and men that is reinforced by inequalities under the law. According to UN Women, one in five adolescent girls, in Bangladesh, between ages 15 and 19, reported experiencing sexual violence at the hands of their partner. Moreover, more than 80 percent of currently married women have experienced abuse at least once during their marriage, in most cases from individuals they knew and trusted, and more than one in four women experience sexual or physical violence of some sort during their lifetime. In total, according to the Violence Against Women Survey 2011, a nationwide study conducted by the government, at least 87 percent of Bangladeshi women face domestic violence.

There is light at the end of the tunnel, however. Over the last few decades, the country has adopted several laws and policies meant to address violence against women and girls, such as the 2009 High Court’s Directive on Sexual Harassment, the Domestic Violence (Prevention and Protection) Act (DVPP) 2010, the Women and Child Repression Suppression Act, and the revision and launch of the National Action Plan on violence against women and children in November 2018. Bangladesh further experienced advancements made in terms of policy framework, with victories such as the High Court’s eradication of the degrading “two-finger test” for rape victims and the more recent removal of the term “Kumari” (virgin) from column 5 of Bangladesh’s standardised Muslim marriage contract.

In the third chapter of the DVPP Act of 2010, the duties and responsibilities of police officers, enforcement officers (EO) and service providers are detailed. Under Section 4, if a “police officer obtains, by any means whatsoever, the information as to the commission of an act of domestic violence or becomes aware of such occurrence”, such an officer shall inform the survivor of her rights, “including the right to make an application for obtaining relief by way of any order under this Act,” of the availability of medical services, and of the services offered by the EO. The police officer must also inform the individual of her right to free legal help under the Legal Aid Services Act, 2000 and her right to file a formal complaint under other existing laws.

Bangladeshi women’s and human rights organisations, including Bangladesh Legal Aid and Services Trust (BLAST), Mahila Parishad, Ain o Salish Kendra (ASK), Bangladesh National Women Lawyers’ Association (BNWLA), and several other organisations actively provide different forms of assistance (legal aid, mediation, halfway homes, etc.) for those affected by domestic violence. Some organisations such as ASK even provide free legal advice to any person who contacts the organisation at any of the legal clinics located across Dhaka city. Given the safety battles associated with filing a formal complaint, ASK also provides fieldworkers who accompany clients to police stations, the Marriage Register’s (Kazi’s) offices, hospitals, and to the courts when necessary. The BNWLA shelter homes, Proshanti, also provide shelter services to women and children as they await legal aid.

Furthermore, Maya Apa, a messaging platform provides on-demand health and well-being information online, whereby users can pose their health and legal questions anonymously to experts within the respective fields. This allows users to overcome the social stigma oft-associated with seeking support and discussing sensitive subjects.

With such a myriad of services and legal sanctions in place throughout the country, it was expected that domestic violence against women would decline; yet, current statistics have contradicted such assumptions and violence against women remains widespread.

One of the primary pitfalls within the system lies in the enforcement of legal doctrines, lack of adequate training for law enforcement officers, the public’s inability to navigate the legal arena, and in the inability/refusal to seek refuge when required. As of 2015, only 2.6 percent of women in Bangladesh took legal action against the physical or sexual violence they have endured at the hands of their partners. Cultural norms also make it difficult for women to seek assistance because of the sociocultural stigma associated with seeking legal aid and taking a case to court, which is often equated with “dishonouring the family name”.

Like many battles in Bangladesh, it evidently comes down to which party has more power—the victim or the perpetrator. Even if survivors do manage to access the law, they often experience trauma on their journey to obtain justice. Incidents of police inertia as well as brutal harassment of women are commonplace, along with having to pay bribes to register cases, which often unravel based on political patronage and economic influence. Furthermore, patriarchal social structures, cultural and religious dogma and superstitions further aggravate the problems.

However, the tendency to commit violence within the family is so deeply rooted that it is only by the proper enforcement of law that we can curb it. Moreover, there exists a strong need, for capacity building of institutions, ensuring sufficiency of resources, coupled with education and awareness of the drivers, and increased cooperation between state and non-state actors. As stated by the UN CEDAW Committee, in order to promote Women’s Human Rights, the Bangladeshi government must commit to ensuring greater gender equality, improving service delivery, and heightening access to immediate means of redress, rehabilitation, and protection.

A home is meant to serve as a sanctuary. Unfortunately, it is also a breeding ground for some of the most life-threatening forms of violence. Therefore, the next time we are approached for assistance by a loved one or we witness the suffering of someone we know, we should provide them with the reassurance and direction they so desperately need, for such incidences are not matters to be resolved at home, alone and in fear. Our women are putting enviable successes in different sectors all over the map, and it is high time we do the utmost to encourage their safe and healthy development.

Talisha Faruk has a bachelor’s degree in Legal Studies from the University of California, Berkeley, and is currently working as an Immigration Paralegal for the law firm Berry Appleman & Leiden, LLP in California. Additionally, she is also working as an intern for Bangladesh Legal Aid and Services Trust (BLAST).

This story was originally published by The Daily Star, Bangladesh