UN Humanitarian Staff in Geneva Experience Anxiety, Job Insecurity & Fear of Tomorrow

UN staff in Geneva protesting proposed pay cuts. Credit: ILO Staff Union
  • Opinion by Isabel Garcia-Gill (geneva)
  • Inter Press Service
  • Isabel Garcia-Gill is a journalist who has worked for daily newspapers, radio broadcasts and weekly magazines in Geneva (Switzerland) and a correspondent based in Rome and Rabat. She has also worked for UNOCHA as well is for the IPCC as Senior Communication Officer. Isabel has published and travelled extensively on professional assignments. She has a very deep knowledge of Latin America. She holds a Master’s degree in Political Sciences from the University of Geneva and in Journalism from Lausanne.

In Geneva, the plan to relocate part of the teams to Istanbul has caused turmoil and incomprehension and has been the cause of many sick leaves over the last twelve months. This deep unease is the result of a serious lack of transparency in internal communication on the future of staff and is also due to the stress linked to the Coronavirus.

2021 will not give more respite

The relocation project announced by Mark Lowcock, UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, plans to move 23 professional posts (P3 to P5) from Geneva to Istanbul, 5 from New York to The Hague and 8 to other countries (some posts have already been relocated from Geneva to The Hague).

However, no date could be set for the signature of the agreement with the Turkish Government or the move to Istanbul during the year 2020. The OCHA Press Office did not answer many questions about the relocation plan. It merely pointed out that OCHA will gradually resort to offshoring in order to reduce its costs and conduct its headquarters activities more efficiently.

Unfortunately, OCHA staff did not receive any internal information by email or post regarding the date of installation in Istanbul. Yet, on his Twitter account, Mark Lowcock said on January 22, 2021: “It was a pleasure to meet yesterday in Turkey at the United Nations headquarters for the signing of the UNOCHA agreement. Many thanks to Ambassador Sinirlioglu ".

Fear in the gut

"I have dedicated more than 20 years to humanitarian affairs in the field and at headquarters. And the head of human resources in Geneva gave me an ultimatum: either I accept the transfer or she will put my post directly up for competition in Istanbul," says a staff member who does not want her name to be mentioned. "People are afraid of retaliation from management".

For many OCHA officials, the current restructuring is not very coherent. They also fear that Geneva's central role in the humanitarian community will be jeopardized if important coordination functions are relocated.

"We are struggling to make sense of all this restructuring", says one interviewee. Several OCHA staff members also said that Mr. Lowcock, a former chartered accountant and Director of Finance at the UK Department for International Development (DFID), seems insensitive to the staff human situation.

Opacity of figures

"There is talk of substantial savings, but we don't know how much money we're talking about," regrets a father who is prepared to leave Geneva in 2021 if necessary. He has calculated the salary he would earn in Turkey, 15% less than in Geneva.

On the one hand, there are plans to cut six general service posts (G4 to G7) in order to recruit locally in Turkey, and on the other hand, the plan is to leave a large number of D1 and D2 director posts in Geneva. Where is the logic?

Last October, for example, a D1 was dismissed and received severance pay equivalent to one year's salary, even though his post had already been filled in Geneva.

Precarious employment

Prisca Chaoui, Executive Secretary of the UNOG Staff Coordinating Board, is concerned about the willingness to relocate administrative posts and transform professional posts in Geneva into temporary jobs under the pretext of making OCHA staff more mobile.

This trend of job insecurity is not new. Another professional woman has had the hard experience of it. She has been working in the UN system, at headquarters and in the field, for about 15 years and was recruited on a fixed-term contract in Geneva.

After a few years at the headquarter, her post was recently abolished and she had to accept a temporary position.

However, Lowcock recently stated: "OCHA will work to strengthen women's leadership in the humanitarian sector (...) In the face of increasingly demanding and dangerous situations (...) the staffing strategy places particular emphasis on the safety, health and well-being of its employees".

The union is outraged

On the side of the Staff Coordinating Council, the observation is severe: "It is unfortunate to note that OCHA, in this plan, is totally failing in its duty of care towards its staff. In resettlement decisions, staff do not occupy the central place that they should have for a humanitarian entity such as OCHA".

Lowcock responded in writing to the union's remarks, saying that OCHA management, including himself, had held several meetings with OCHA staff representatives and the UN union in New York and Geneva in 2019 and 2020.

"While we understand the need for staff mobility, we believe that decisions must be people-centered first and foremost. Instead, OCHA's leadership has succeeded in taking the human dimension out of the term 'humanitarian'," concludes Prisca Chaoui.

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© Inter Press Service (2021) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service