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Tuesday, August 4, 2020
Prisca Chaoui is Executive Secretary of the Staff Coordinating Council of the UN Office in Geneva (UNOG)
GENEVA, Jul 15 2020 (IPS) - Two years have passed since the introduction of the illegal pay cuts imposed on staff in the Professional category– and above– working for the UN in Geneva, following a cost of living survey conducted by the International Civil Service Commission (ICSC) in 2016.
For this second anniversary, the UN Dispute Tribunal (UNDT), whose jurisdiction covers staff working in the UN secretariat, issued its judgement declaring the cuts legal.
This was contrary to the ILOAT (Administrative Tribunal of the International Labour Organization) judgement of 2019 that led to the restoration of the salaries that were prevailing before the introduction of the cuts for staff working in the agencies, namely WIPO, ILO, WHO, ITU and IOM.
This means that for a work of equal value, staff working for the Secretariat, in a duty station that is among the most expensive ones in the world, are paid less than their peers in the agencies.
The irony is that the UN preaches for very noble principles, one of them being the “equal pay for equal work” for the outside world, but it is obviously failing in implementing them for its own staff.
In 2019, the General Assembly declared 18 September, “International Equal Pay Day”, but it seems the UN is exempted from guaranteeing it to its own staff. The question is why?
The answer is simple: the pay cuts have initially been introduced as a cost-saving measure, based on what was inadvertently recognized by one of the ICSC commissioners in 2017. The mere fact that the UN secretariat never budgeted the retroactive payment of salaries in case the judgement was in favour of staff, says it all.
The UNDT, whose judges are appointed by the General Assembly, is supposed to be independent and to ensure justice for the involved parties. However, it failed to prove its independence in the pay cut file.
In the past, the UNAT, which is the appeal tribunal, was accused of politicization but in this particular case, the UNDT followed suit.
Indeed, the words of one of the top administrative law lawyers who represented some of the applicants are very revealing: “I can only state my deepest disagreement on what the judgement says regarding the ICSC and the overall process that led to these cuts.
The judge seems to become suddenly deaf and blind on any real criticism concerning the past and interprets in a very tendentious manner the diverse opinions, all this with the aim of proving that the applicant is wrong in its submission”.
It is important to recall that the first hearing regarding the Geneva pay cut case took place in October 2018. Based on the code of conduct of the judges, the judgement should have been issued three months later.
The early issuance of the judgement would have made sense for a case that was submitted by over 800 staff, which is totally unprecedented since the establishment of the tribunal in 2009.
But, instead of issuing its judgement early on time, the UNDT tried to gain time in order to dismiss all the arguments used by ILOAT to declare the cuts illegal. The late issuance of the judgement was perceived by staff as a denial of justice, as “justice delayed simply means justice denied.”
Apart from breaching the sacred principle of equal pay for equal work, this judgement announces the end of the common system which was initially put in place to secure equal treatment to all international civil servants, in order to avoid any undue competition between the different organizations that constitute the UN system.
What is troubling in this situation is that it might repeat itself in other locations leading to a complete fragmented system whereby each organization decides on the salaries and benefits that would be paid to staff, which in turn put into question the future of the ICSC that is supposed to be a technical body but is turning into a mere political one.
The “one UN” that is dear to both Member states and staff is becoming a delusion, even for administrative matters.
UN staff in Geneva are under shock since the announcement of the results of this legal battle that was their only remaining hope, as all their past attempts to make the Secretary General correct this unfortunate situation failed to bear any concrete result.
“Guterres doesn’t seem to care about his staff as he pretends it, he lost their trust”, says a staff member. Another one says: “I used to believe that the UN walks the talk but this was the past. This situation is a blatant breach of fundamental labour rights, which is unacceptable for an organization such as the UN ”.
Staff in Geneva feel abandoned by a Secretary General, whose main objective is to be re-elected, regardless of how his own staff are treated, which is a real pity.
Staff feel demotivated to see that their employer cares about everything except about them, giving them the impression that they are goods that can be easily traded off.
What’s next? In normal times, this situation should have warranted an industrial action such as an open strike to oblige the organization to find a solution that would save the common system from agonizing.
However, the Covid-19 impact on the organization and its finances, as well as the deliberate attacks against multilateralism by certain international players make it difficult for staff to opt for such a move.
If it weren’t out of belief in the organization and its mandate, many staff would have let the lack of motivation and trust in the UN as employer take hold of them.
Would the coming years bring more bad surprises for staff? Will Guterres be able to defend his own staff or will he choose to remain silent, regardless of what happens to them?
Will UN jobs still be attractive for young generations who are seeking for a reliable and trustworthy employer?
These are legitimate questions that each and everyone is entitled to ask but who has the answer? I guess only time will be able to bring answers.
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