UN staff unions warn salary cuts could hit morale

A night view of the "allée des drapeaux" of the United Nations in Geneva. Photo by: Jean-Marc Ferré / U.N. / CC BY-NC-ND

UNITED NATIONS — United Nations staffers are questioning the rationale behind new salary cuts, saying that the U.N. is not correctly calculating the high cost of living in some cities such as Tokyo and Geneva and that the move will also hit morale.

U.N. staffers walked out from a Human Rights Council meeting and a Conference of Disarmament session — while U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres was speaking — last week in Geneva to protest the salary adjustments.

Geneva staffers learned last month they would experience a 5 percent wage decrease, effective immediately. Cuts elsewhere total 13 percent in Bangkok, and 25 percent of old salaries in Tokyo. Not all offices are taking a hit, however. In New York, international staff are receiving an increase of about 1 percent of their existing wages.

The U.N.’s staff unions do not have a formal role in negotiating their salaries and are subject to the decisions made by the U.N.’s International Civil Service Commission, composed of 15 members appointed by the General Assembly.

There’s a need for a reworking of this closed process, said Ian Richards, the Geneva-based president of the Coordinating Committee of International Staff Unions and Associations.

“We can be heard, but that doesn’t mean anything beyond that. That’s why we feel there has to be a reform [of the ISCS]. We have been talking about reform for years, but when you have cuts like this that is when things come to a head,” Richards said in an interview at U.N. headquarters.

“We see intentions for reform, but we are not really seeing a roadmap for how that is going to happen. And we still see the cuts.”

The cuts follow a hiring freeze for the last eight years.

Members of the staff union met late last week with Guterres to air their grievances about the wage cuts — previously signaled to top off at just 3 percent for staffers in places like Geneva. Other concerns regarding the “substantial deterioration in the employment conditions of U.N. staff around the world,” as staff union leaders wrote in a letter to executive heads of U.N. agencies last month, were also aired in the meeting.

These include less-than-ideal work-life balances for people working in hardship duty stations — places like Syria. Previously, people working in these missions were able to travel back to see their families once a year — now it is twice a year. This is part of the driving factor that limits the number of people with families who are keen to take on hardship duty posts, according to the staff unions.

Guterres voiced the need for reform of the ICSC, but no firm commitments were made during the conversation.

The issue of wage cuts, also extending to New Delhi and Cairo, are independent of any broad U.N. budget negotiations or reductions.

The ICSC’s decision to adjust cost-of-living in major cities conflicts with some government estimates by countries like Switzerland, according to Richards.

The staff unions are now considering how they can appeal this decision through the U.N. dispute tribunal.

“It’s a question of how do you keep doing the same job with less pay?” Richards said. “It affects the morale. People don’t feel like [they are] being appreciated.”

About the author

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    Amy Lieberman

    Amy Lieberman is the New York Correspondent for Devex. She covers the United Nations and reports on global development and politics. Amy previously worked as a freelance reporter, covering the environment, human rights, immigration, and health across the U.S. and in more than 10 countries, including Colombia, Mexico, Nepal, and Cambodia. Her coverage has appeared in the Guardian, the Atlantic, Slate, and the Los Angeles Times. A native New Yorker, Amy received her master’s degree in politics and government from Columbia’s School of Journalism.