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U.N. Renovation Leaves Some Workers High and Dry

Haider Rizvi

UNITED NATIONS, Oct 11 2010 (IPS) - For more than two decades, he has served world leaders and diplomats who wined and dined here at United Nations headquarters in New York. Today, he is unsure how much longer he will be able to put food on his own table at home.

“We have been working here for so many years, but now they want to kick us out. This is not fair. We have families,” said Syed Hussain, 54, who hails from Bangladesh and has worked at the delegates’ dining room since 1988.

Hussain and his colleagues told IPS that all of them – nearly 100 – were worried about losing their jobs because Aramark, the private food company they work for, has decided to close down its operations at U.N. headquarters.

In May 2009, Aramark sent a letter to its employees indicating that it would no longer need their services after Aug. 10, 2010 when the U.N. started implementing its Capital Master Plan (CMP) to renovate the secretariat building, a landmark structure in midtown Manhattan, which was built between 1950 and 1952. It now appears that the workers will be laid off by the end of October.

The U.N. complex sits on more than 17 acres and includes six buildings totaling about 2.6 million square feet. The renovation work is due to be completed by 2013. Since last December, when the renovation started, some 6,000 UN employees have been relocated to other buildings.

The relocation has not only caused job losses for long-time workers like Hussain, but also made it hard for the staff and delegates to mingle with each other to exchange ideas about world affairs at lunch or dinner tables at a common and convenient place.

“It’s no longer the United Nations. It’s the dis-United Nations,” remarked journalist Dogan Uluc. “It takes me more than 15 minutes from my office to walk all the way to a conference room in the new building. This is ridiculous. It’s lousy planning.”

Some critics have argued that the renovation is being used as a pretext to curb media access to delegates and Security Council members, and is also a veritable smokescreen to tighten restrictions on non-governmental organisations (NGOs) accredited to the world body.

In a hard-hitting letter to Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in April, the NGO Working Group on U.N. Access complained that “the temporary arrangements, as part of the Capital Master Plan, are creating additional access problems and significantly reducing space for NGO participation.”

In contrast, the plight of contract workers at the U.N., like those in the cafeteria, has been largely unnoticed.

Asked to explain why the architects of the so-called Capital Master Plan failed to take into consideration the negative impact on the professional and personal lives of the people who work at the U.N. compound, a CMP official referred IPS to Central Management Services (CMS), which signed the contract with Aramark. CMS officials did not respond to requests for comment on the loss of jobs for the delegates’ dining room workers.

Jolio Mayata, who has worked there for more than 10 years, is worried. “The management is closing it down because they think they would lose business. But something must be done about it. For so many years, it has never been closed, not even during 9/11,” he said.

Mir Wazid, a shop steward, added: “They (Aramark) say they are going to lose the business. Everybody is out of a job these days. If we are out of job, there will be no health insurance for us. The U.N. talks about human rights. Where are our human rights in this place?”

Manowar Khan, who has been working at the delegates’ dining room since 1988, expressed similar concerns about U.N. officials’ seeming inability to persuade Aramark to provide job security to its employees.

“The U.N. donates money all over the world, but here nobody cares for us. If they can’t solve this internal problem, how can they claim to be solving the world’s problems? The Fifth committee must take stern action to save our jobs. After all, we have served its members for so long,” he said.

The Fifth Committee of the U.N. General Assembly is responsible for the world body’s administration and budgetary matters.

Farhan Haq, a spokesperson for U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, said U.N. officials fully support the rights of the dining room staff. “It’s Aramark which makes decisions [about hiring and firing]. We don’t. But we are trying to tell them that they should keep their staff,” he said.

Like Haq, an official of the International Labour Organisation (ILO), which is part of the U.N. system, expressed sympathy for the workers, but requested that his name not be used.

“We hope the catering company would follow the ILO rules,” he said in response to a question about whether or not the ILO rules apply to workers who serve U.N. staff members and diplomats. “We would like to see the contracts between the U.N. and the catering company to be honoured.”

When approached by this correspondent, the company’s general manager, Ron Beck, first agreed to an interview in person, but later backtracked, saying: “I am not allowed to speak to you.”

However, he confirmed that his company was ready to lay off its workers by the end of this month.

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