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UN Frontline Staff Consider Their Options as Pay Cuts Loom

Ian Richards, president of the Coordinating Committee of International Staff Unions and Associations

Nov 3 2015- When the world’s most powerful ambassadors gathered in New York last week to celebrate the United Nations’ 70th anniversary, it would have been undiplomatic to mention the looming crisis facing the UN’s proudest achievement – its humanitarian aid programmes.

But the diplomats and political leaders at the anniversary concert in the General Assembly Hall with Lang Lang and the Harlem Boys Gospel Choir were well aware that they have just a few months to avert a fundamental threat to the UN’s ability to deliver its aid programmes effectively.

UN professional staff who deliver emergency relief in some of the most dangerous places in the world are now considering their options after learning that the value of their pay and allowances, including the right to family leave, will be cut by up to 10% next year, after a three year pay-freeze. The cuts will be heaviest at the lower grades, thereby falling disproportionately on staff recruited from the same developing countries that the UN is trying to help.

When the cuts were announced to World Food Programme workers in South Sudan, a staff association representative who was there said: “Everyone looked like they’d been punched in the stomach.”

With the UN weathering allegations of corruption and retaliations against whistle-blowers, the last thing it should do is undermine the humanitarian aid programmes that justify its existence and uphold its reputation across the developing world.

In the tragedy that is Syria today, the UN can at least say that it is providing food, shelter and places of safety for the displaced population and people in insecure areas.

The World Food Programme has just over 200 staff in Syria, organising daily food rations for 4.25 million people. The staff regularly cross front lines between Government and opposition control in conditions of extreme danger. Work like this has led to 319 UN staff and contractors being killed in service, 325 being injured and 164 kidnappings since 2000.

Lourdes Ibarra, WFP’s Head of Programmes for Syria, and an experienced manager in South Sudan, Afghanistan, Iraq and other “hardship stations” says: “We work in dangerous, challenging conditions. Some colleagues leave because of the conditions and the strain on their families, and we have lost colleagues who were killed in armed attacks and bombings.

“What keeps us working here is knowing that we can save lives, and to do that takes a highly committed, highly motivated staff.

“One of the most stressful situations is not actually the physical danger – it is the feeling of not being supported by some people we work with, and more so by the UN itself.

“If my staff are not being supported, and conditions mean we cannot make a difference, what do we think will keep them working here?”

Any Member State that votes in favour of these cuts needs to be able to answer that question.

Staff have set up the Fairness for Frontline Workers campaign asking the public across the world to put pressure on their Governments to reject these flawed proposals.

The cuts have been put forward by the International Civil Service Commission (ICSC), the pay advisory body for global public sector organisations, in the context of budget constraints forced by austerity. This year’s package affects 32,000 globally mobile UN staff; next year the ICSC turns its attention to the 62,000 local staff.

The ICSC has struggled to justify the unbalanced impact of the cuts, which take the most from single parents, who are mainly women, at a time when Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has pledged to increase the number of women in senior field positions.

The cuts will make it more difficult and more expensive for workers posted in the most difficult and dangerous locations to take leave to see their families and get medical checkups. The UN’s medical directors have said: ‘This is an area of great concern’ because family leave and respite breaks ‘prevent stress-related symptoms and disorder in the long term.’ Mental health problems already account for 25 per cent of UN sickness leave and 40 per cent of the costs.

An unusual aspect of the situation is the strong degree of agreement between UN staff unions and management. UN aid agency chiefs have warned that effective aid programmes and humanitarian interventions will be severely compromised without experienced, motivated staff to run them.

Further, the chiefs of all UN agencies including UNICEF, the World Food Programme and the UNHCR have jointly voiced their concern that the pay changes are ‘not fit for purpose’ in terms of meeting the UN’s stated ambitions for a more diverse staff with more women in senior roles, or for increased ‘mobility’ – moving staff quickly to danger zones where they are needed to save lives.

They warn that the cuts will make it harder to attract ‘the brightest and best,’ and have a negative impact on staff motivation – when the personal risks for staff in danger zones already deter all but the most highly motivated.
We believe the cuts are penny wise, dollar foolish – saving some agencies 1 per cent of their budgets next year, but costing far more in the medium term when experienced aid managers, with years under the belt in the world’s most remote locations, leave and cannot be replaced.

If that happens, the UN won’t have much to celebrate when its 80th anniversary comes around.

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