The Geneva-based World Health Organization (WHO) could face lawsuits amounting to hundreds of millions of Swiss francs over wrongful dismissals, warns a lawyer.
A three-day WHO executive board special meeting ended on Thursday with the green light for a package of reforms, which included a savings programme and job cuts. Estimates of 300-700 jobs may go - up to 34 per cent of all headquarters’ posts.
“These are absolutely extraordinary cutbacks – pretty much unprecedented in the public and private sector,” Matthew Parish, the lawyer representing most of the WHO staff facing the axe, told swissinfo.ch.
He believes the ongoing redundancies have violated numerous legal procedures.
“While the relevant law allows redundancies under certain circumstances, fair procedures need to be followed. For example, posts need to be abolished rather than individual positions, where there is a reduction in size it needs to follow a rational plan in consultation with staff representatives… and reasonable efforts need to be made to reassign people. Unfortunately we have seen that virtually every single rule has been disregarded,” he explained.
One WHO staff member told the local Radio Frontier website: “It is disgusting to see how this exercise is being carried out. It's people who are being targeted and not posts.”
Parish said there was evidence of tax discrimination, as a “disproportionate number of US citizens” risk losing their jobs as they were too expensive to employ.
The lawyer said he was working to avoid redundancies and get jobs back. If that failed, clients would seek compensation after contacting the International Labour Organisation (ILO), which could amount to up to $500,000 (SFr442,450) each, he said.
“If the WHO doesn’t backtrack on this they are looking at claims of tens or hundreds of millions of Swiss francs,” said the lawyer, who works for the Geneva branch of Holman Fenwick Willan. “There is a real risk whether it’s going to survive, which is sad as its mission is very honourable.”
In reply, WHO spokesman Gregory Hartl defended the redundancy process.
“We have followed all internal procedures and the staff association was consulted at every step,” he declared, adding that it was premature to talk about lawsuits and their threat to the organization.
Officially, 300-350 jobs are being cut at the Geneva secretariat this year out of a total of 2,400. Another 350 are under review, but no decision has been taken yet, according to WHO. The health agency employs 8,500 people globally.
Parish believes the organization has a “rolling programme” of redundancies and when next year’s budget is finalized the total will be more like 700.
“I don’t know where he got this figure from,” retorted Hartl.
Following the special board meeting, WHO’s deputy director general, Daniel Lopez-Acuna, said priorities were being reviewed.
“There will be no big bang, but rather a gradual change which will take some time,” he told reporters on Friday.
“Financial resources and staff will be progressively transferred to country programmes. Some areas of activities will be abandoned,” he said, without being specific.
The WHO executive board has asked director general Margaret Chan to take “immediate measures” to implement reforms. She must report back in January 2012, and any decisions on additional job cuts are likely to be made in May 2012 at the World Health Assembly.
In May 2011 WHO announced it was slashing $1 billion from its $4.8 billion 2012-2013 budget and cutting jobs at its Geneva headquarters because of financial constraints in donor countries. It expects a $300 million deficit this year.
“Their budget depends on major donor countries and when they themselves are experiencing budgetary problems, there is a repercussion on international organisations,” said Olivier Coutau, a cantonal delegate in charge of International Geneva relations.
Around three-quarters of the agency's income comes in dollars, although about the same proportion of expenditure is in Swiss francs or currencies that have also appreciated against the US currency.
Coutau tried to put the WHO job losses in context: “Without minimising the losses, we shouldn’t be pulling the alarm bell. This is nothing new; all international organisations try to save money. The general health of Geneva International remains rather good, despite the handicaps linked to prices.”
WHO says any future job cuts will depend on the implementation of next year’s reforms as well as the levels of contributions from member states and the strength of the Swiss franc.
But Parish rejected the strong franc argument, which he felt “was not affecting other international organisations and corporations to the same extent”.
He blamed WHO for “expanding operations endlessly over recent years and trying to capture market share from other health organisations like UNAIDS”.
“There is a widespread feeling that money at WHO is not well spent and staff are not well used, so ultimately responsibility lies at the door of management,” he declared.
French-speaking Geneva is at the western end of Lake Geneva, surrounded on almost all sides by France. The canton has 103 kilometres of borders with Switzerland's neighbour and just 4.5 kilometres with the rest of the country.
The city itself has 185,000 inhabitants, while the canton has 453,439 (2008). The metropolitan Geneva area (which includes nine other towns) covers most of the canton and spreads across into France (population 730,000). Some 40 per cent of the Geneva population is foreign.
Geneva is home to the headquarters of 32 international organisations, such as the World Health Organization, the World Trade Organization and the International Committee of the Red Cross. "International Geneva", as it is known, is worth around SFr3 billion a year to the canton.
In all, some 40,000 international diplomats and civil servants are based in Geneva; in addition there are around 2,400 staff working for 250 non-governmental organisations. Around 8,500 staff work for the United Nations family in Geneva, which is the largest concentration of UN personnel in the world. There are also 168 permanent diplomatic missions to the UN.
The Swiss government last week increased its financial support to assist organisations operating in Geneva and for international conferences by SFr54 million to SFr118 million.
Geneva is facing stiff competition to host international organisations and NGOs from cities such as Vienna, The Hague, Copenhagen, Bonn, Budapest and Madrid as well as new actors such as Singapore, Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Doha and Seoul.
By Simon Bradley, swissinfo.ch