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Thursday, August 6, 2020
UNITED NATIONS, Apr 17 2020 (IPS) - The deadly coronavirus COVID-19, which has shut down the UN secretariat in New York, along with 32 of its agencies globally, has forced over 37,500 UN staffers worldwide to work from their homes.
Asked about a decision to re-open the Secretariat building after nearly a month-long hiatus, UN spokesperson Stephane Dujarric said: “I don’t know. I think, some experts have said, it’s the virus that will decide.”
Still, there are several other lingering questions which remain unanswered– specifically against the backdrop of a severe new cash crisis threatening the survival of the UN and aggravated by a global economic meltdown.
If the crisis continues, will there be staff layoffs in a country where more than 22 million people have lost their jobs as a result of the pandemic.?
In New York city alone – host to the United Nations – it is estimated that 475,000 jobs will be lost by March 2021, and nearly 60,000 workers in the New York’s five boroughs will be out of work before July this year, according to a report last week from the city’s Independent Budget Office.
Among some of the questions raised by staffers: how long can the UN keep its staff on its payroll while the Organization is fast running out of cash– and is on an austerity drive freezing new recruitment?
If there are salary cuts, will they start at the top with senior management (as is done in several private sector firms in the US). Or will it start at the bottom?
And, equally important question by staffers: will medical coverage be affected?
As things stand, if UN staffers are laid off, they are unlikely to qualify for unemployment benefits from New York State because the UN is an international organization with its own independent status.
Meanwhile, will the global economic recession have a direct or an indirect impact on the estimated $67.8 billion UN Pension Fund (as of September 2019) on which UN retirees survive? What was the reason, for the sudden resignation of a senior official, which is being kept under wraps?
And what is the future of educational grants staffers are entitled to?
Guy Candusso, a former First Vice President of the UN Staff Union, told IPS the UN was in bad shape financially long before this pandemic hit the Organization.
“We know member states are now under tremendous pressure but they still must step up and fulfill their obligations.”
If there are to be furloughs of staff, it should be the very last step taken by the organization, and done across all levels of staff and management, he argued.
“In any case, the Organization must continue to pay their medical insurance. It should not be cut as it is more necessary now than ever.”
Candusso also pointed out that UN staff in New York were never eligible for unemployment insurance.
“I don’t know if the current law passed by the US Congress makes UN staff eligible for any benefits,” he said.
In a letter to 92 heads of departments, regional commissions, special political missions and peacekeeping operations, Catherine Pollard, Under-Secretary-General for Management Strategy, Policy and Compliance, says contributions for regular budget assessments have “sharply declined” in the first quarter of 2020 relative to earlier years, and the payment of assessments by the 193 member states currently stands at 42 percent compared to 50 percent by this time in earlier years.
This has resulted in a collection gap of more than $220 million while outstanding contributions for regular budget have reached $2.27 billion, said Pollard.
As a result, the UN has decided to temporarily suspend all hiring for regular budget vacancies and limit all non-post expenses while postponing all discretionary spending unless it is directly and immediately linked to ongoing mandated activities—activities approved by the General Assembly, the UN’s highest policy making body.
Pollard also said that even peacekeeping operations face increasing liquidity pressure with outstanding contributions amounting to $3.16 billion.
Ian Richards, a UN Staff representative and former President of the 60,000-strong Coordinating Committee of International Staff Unions and Associations (CCISUA), told IPS there are a number of factors at play, and for this reason, it is too early to draw hard conclusions.
“Yes, governments have had to devote a lot of resources to trying to mitigate the impact of the crisis within their borders, and for some countries, money is limited.”
“But many also realise that efforts to fight this global pandemic at home and abroad are only as strong as the world’s weakest health systems and economies –and the world’s most vulnerable populations”.
“So. we are seeing aid budgets being redirected to this area,” he noted.
The UN’s ability to position itself in this area and demonstrate the importance of international coordination, is key to securing funding stability.
“Staff are certainly worried, but we all have a role to play here”, said Richards .
“At the same time, we need to be vigilant about vulnerable staff, such as those on temporary or uber-style contracts, falling through the gaps”.
“The Secretary-General has made assurances to protect a great many of them, but they are also the most impacted by the postponement of conferences and other activities,” he said.
Samir Sanbar, a former UN Assistant Secretary-General and head of the Department of Public Information (now re-christened Department of Global Communications) told IPS “unprecedented times require unprecedented creative handling”.
Focus on essential staff is crucial for the U.N. to survive when member states, particularly those unabashedly failing to pay their assessed dues, avert minimum required action.
He pointed out that many U.N. programmes and Funds, like UNDP, UNICEF,UNHCR and UNRWA depend on voluntary contributions.
Certain governments which are not even paying their mandatory dues may use the global virus as a pretext to avoid or delay payments.
The Secretary General who is trying his best called for ceasefire in conflicts but with limited results. And peacekeeping operations are increasingly vulnerable, said Sanbar.
Staff face risk of catching the virus working in close proximity while not getting adequate payment– let alone required per diem, he said.
Sanbar said countries contributing troops are more likely to focus on their internal needs while staff representatives who would normally meet to co-ordinate and propose action are limited by home confinement.
“Let us hope the obvious threat in varied forms inspires unity of thought and action among leadership and staff of all the U.N. system,” he declared.
Andreas Bummel, Executive Director, Democracy Without Borders, told IPS the liquidity crisis has been lingering for more than a year and major contributors should not be allowed to use the coronavirus pandemic as an excuse to continue withholding their dues.
A strong and functional UN is in the best interest of all member states and the world community, he said.
The writer can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
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