Threat of strike over staff cuts shakes up FAO

The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization logo. A planned restructuring of the agency's human resources has ruffled the feathers of its staff. Photo by: Alessia Pierdomenico / FAO

The rumor of a mass strike became on Wednesday the buzz at the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization’s headquarters in Rome, where many staffers are irate at director-general Jose Graziano da Silva’s planned restructuring in human resources.

Devex learned that union leaders called a special meeting to discuss what the next step should be, and actions like protesting, sabotaging FAO events or even a general strike were being considered.

Staff cuts have been expected at the agency ever since member states asked last June for Graziano da Silva to come up with at least $37 million in savings.

The negotiations between management and employes have yet to produce any type of consensus, and layoffs may just be the tip of the iceberg as FAO tries to tighten its belt to deal with the budget uncertainty from its top donors.

Changes in HR guidelines

Apart from the staff cuts, the agency confirmed earlier this week it is also looking to change part of its current policy on human resources, the set of regulations that cover recruitment, deployment and termination.

On Monday evening, the director-general sent a letter to all personnel, informing them that the negotiations were over, the redeployment guidelines will be updated and the so-called “reduction in force” mechanism or RIF — the process to terminate contracts for financial reasons — would be abolished.

Staff representatives said Graziano da Silva took an unilateral decision on RIF, making them aware of the issue too only in September.

“We are very concerned about [RIF’s taking off] because this means that we are ultimately all in a precarious situation,” an employee complained during Monday’s meeting. RIF specifies how the agency can cut staff in case of restructuring, following the “last person, first out” principle, so newer and less senior employees are always the first to be laid off.

FAO management sees the mechanism as cumbersome and useless, and wants to abolish it altogether to make human resources policy more efficient.

But why all this this buzz about RIF when the agency has never before implemented it in the whole history of the organization? That is only because staffing issues have traditionally always come from negotiation between both sides, and never strict application of the HR guidelines, are technically designed to protect employees against arbitrary layoffs. The majority of staff refuses to approve any changes if RIF is dropped.

Deep budget cuts

Graziano da Silva’s letter indicated that 75 percent of the $37 million worth of savings would come from staff cuts, including the dismissal of the entire IT division.

FAO employees however argue management could have explored alternatives to this, like reducing entitlements or educational grants, spending less for consultants or for expensive special advisors. They also question the criteria tO determine the restructuring.

“We feel that the organization is not being completely transparent in the way this process has been undertaken,” a worker said during Monday’s meeting. Colleagues also complain about lack of information on the process from the beginning.

Sources inside the agency told Devex they feel that Graziano da Silva just wants to grant member states their wishes so they will secure his re-election for a second term in 2015.

However, the same sources argue that management is just trying to downsize regular staff and rely more on temporary consultants to save money in the long run — precisely what regular employees fear the most.

Deteriorating work environment

Over that last couple of days, the tensions between staff and management has increased at FAO, but this is not new.

A U.N. source told Devex that the agency is offering voluntary dismissals, presumably with incentives, but on condition of almost immediate acceptance. They are also pressuring staff by saying there is no money for redeployment, even if that’s not true, according to the same source.

Trade unions are asking FAO management “to reverse and cancel all actions aimed at eliminating staff though intimidation.”

So what will happen? Employees hope to persuade Graziano da Silva to reconsider his decision before the agency’s governing body meets in December, but that seems unlikely for now.

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About the author

  • Elena L. Pasquini

    Elena Pasquini covers the development work of the European Union as well as various U.N. food and agricultural agencies for Devex News. Based in Rome, she also reports on Italy's aid reforms and attends the European Development Days and other events across Europe. She has interviewed top international development officials, including European Commissioner for Development Andris Piebalgs. Elena has contributed to Italian and international magazines, newspapers and news portals since 1995.

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