Global Policy Forum

Staff on War Path with UN Chief


By Thalif Deen

Inter Press Service
April 12, 2006

The 5,000-strong U.N. Staff Union, which has publicly expressed anger and frustration over its frayed relationship with senior management in the Secretariat, wants to turn to the 191 member states for help to redress their grievances.

The Union has already passed two resolutions expressing its lack of confidence both in Secretary-General Kofi Annan and his senior management team, led by Deputy Secretary-General Mark Malloch Brown. Asked if the next step would be to ask for their resignations, Emad Hassanin, vice president of the Staff Union, told IPS: "It is not for the staff of the organisation to call for the resignation of the secretary-general and his deputy. That prerogative lies with member states in the General Assembly." But the Union, he said, plans to coordinate its next step with "sister unions and associations" in the U.N. system worldwide. "We shall also talk to member states to explain our position," he added. But he refused to say whether direct trade union action would be an option.

At a town hall meeting last month, Union President Rosemarie Waters said that since Annan's administration has shown a lack of interest in the views of staff representatives, the staff had asked the union to conduct a "comprehensive campaign" with member states and the media "to do everything in our power to halt the constant efforts of the management to erode the rights and benefits of staff -- and particularly, now, the latest proposal to eradicate thousands of U.N. jobs as a consequence of outsourcing and off-shoring."

Annan and Malloch Brown addressed two separate raucous town hall meetings last month where they were pummeled by staffers who accused them of undermining the concept of the international civil service. They were also accused of planning to turn the world body into a U.S.-style private corporation where the bottom line would be governed by a "value-for-money" ethic.

"I am told this is not a company," said Annan responding to staff complaints. "But the governments who are paying the budget would want to get value for money, and they would want to see us stretch the dollar as far as it could go. And they would want us to deliver service, and so would we. We would want to deliver the services efficiently and effectively, whether we are a company or not."

But Hassanin told IPS: "The answers received both from the secretary-general and the deputy secretary-general did nothing to change the staff view that there is a fundamental attack on the very substance of the international civil service." "This has to be resisted if the organization is to survive as an independent and not an intergovernmental body," he warned. He said that most of the reform proposals -- including outsourcing, off-shoring, proposed lay-offs, staff buyouts and abolition of permanent job contracts -- "clearly show the intent is to weaken the international civil service and transform it into an intergovernmental organisation that will be led by the powerful to the detriment of the less powerful", Hassanin said.

The anger and frustrations have been triggered primarily by a recently-released 43-page report which spells out a proposed wide-ranging plan for the radical restructuring of the U.N. secretariat in New York.

Waters said that following an emergency meeting of more than 700 staffers, she was told to convey a message to Annan -- that his senior management is jettisoning some of the basic principles the organisation preaches to the rest of the world: transparency and accountability. "The meeting," she said "rejected the characterization of staff as not being sufficiently skilled to adapt to the changing needs of this organization. And we resent the fact that staff representatives will only now be consulted, after major proposals have already been tabled," Waters told Annan.

Responding to the charges, Annan said: "I know that the question of outsourcing and so-called off-shoring concerns many of you. As you know, it is increasingly common for organizations to contract out a range of services, or to move certain administrative functions to other locations, which is sometimes know as off-shoring."

"No decisions -- I repeat, no decisions -- have been taken on either of these practices. Certainly core functions must be done by international civil servants. But we would be irresponsible not to explore our options for activities which are not core, and which could be done as well or better elsewhere.' "And a global organization must at least ask itself whether it is right for such a large proportion of its staff and their activities, with the economic benefits that flow from them, to be crowded into the richest city of our richest member state, where rents and real estate prices are among the highest in the world," he said, referring to New York city where the Secretariat is located.

The proposed outsourcing is expected to involve mostly printing, translations and editing, some of which are already being done outside the U.N. premises. At the town hall meeting, one of the staffers told Annan: "You mentioned that one of the ideas of outsourcing is that the rents and cost of living in New York are too expensive. But this is an international organization. We are not a corporation." "Sorry, if my examples are simplistic, but I don't see any government, for example, in Stockholm, Oslo or whatever, with high rents and high salaries, outsourcing their civil service to some third world country because the salaries there are cheaper." The international civil service, she argued, should not be held to standards that can be only measured in terms of how much salary is paid in New York City.

At the conclusion of the meeting, Annan told his staff: "I think I've heard -- you've spoken very frankly; I've heard there is considerable concern, frustration and anger. But I hope this exercise has been healthy, and I have listened to you."

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