UN Geneva staff plan strike over 'unfair' pay cut

Angered by "unfair" pay cuts, UN staff in Geneva are planning a half-day strike tomorrow, as dozens of ministers and other dignitaries attend high-level events at the headquarters.

Angered by “unfair” pay cuts, UN staff in Geneva are planning a half-day strike tomorrow, as dozens of ministers and other dignitaries attend high-level events at the organization’s European headquarters.

“We have tried other forms of protest before, to no avail. They have left us no choice,” Ian Richards, who heads the UN staff unions association in Geneva, said on Sunday.

He said it remained unclear how many of some 9,500 UN staff members in Geneva would participate in the work stoppage, or what impact it would have, pointing out that “this is not like a bus company where the buses just stop.”

“But we certainly expect this to have an impact,” Richards said.

The half-day work stoppage will come during what is arguably one of the busiest weeks of the year at the UN in Geneva, with around 100 heads of state, government ministers and country representatives from around the world set to attend the main annual sessions of the UN’s top human rights and disarmament bodies.

Speaking on behalf of the UN in Geneva, spokeswoman Alessandra Vellucci said staff should be “reminded that actions which disrupt or interfere with official activity of the Organization may be considered contravening staff obligations.”

She stressed though that “UN Geneva recognizes and respects the right of staff to freedom of association and acknowledges the dissatisfaction of staff” linked to pay cuts.

She said “contingency plans” had been put in place to “minimise the consequences of the possible work stoppage in a period of intense diplomatic activity” at the UN in Geneva.

According to a letter sent to all UN agency chiefs late last week, Tuesday will mark only “a first day of action, (and will) be followed by others.”

The letter, sent by the unions and representatives of civil servants working for the UN, went out as staff received their first pay slips showing a 3.5-percent salary cut, and with the knowledge that the cut will swell to 5 percent by June.

The signatories said staff had “lost confidence” in the International Civil Service Commission, a body appointed by the UN General Assembly to govern UN employees which has ordered deep cuts to pay and benefits for many staff around the globe.

There has been a “substantial deterioration in the employment conditions of UN staff around the world, caused by ICSC’s findings, recommendations and decisions,” the letter complained, accusing the body of pursuing an “austerity agenda driven by certain member states.”

Although the letter did not mention the member states by name, the United States, which has long been the top UN contributor, is clearly among them. Since President Donald Trump, a vocal UN critic, took office last year, Washington has demanded significant belt-tightening and has threatened deep budget cuts to many UN agencies.

UN employees are by contract the highest paid civil servants in the world, with their tax-free salaries often complemented by multiple benefits including subsidies for rent, healthcare and educational grants for their children.

Richards said some review and reform of the UN payment system was not unreasonable, but insisted that “it has to be done in a transparent, balanced and fair way.”