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Wage dispute UN Geneva staff fight pay cut plans

UN staff protest against pay cuts plans outside of the European headquarters of the United Nations in Geneva on April 25

UN staff protest against pay cuts plans outside of the European headquarters of the United Nations in Geneva on April 25


(Keystone)

Around 500 United Nations staff in Geneva have protested inside the UN Palais des Nations complex against plans to cut annual salaries of international civil servants based in the Swiss city. 

Staff gathered in the rain on Tuesday in front of the historic white buildingexternal link, waved “No 7.5% pay cut” red cards and shouted in anger at a proposal to lower UN Geneva–level salaries by reducing a so-called ‘”post adjustment index” for professional staff working in the city.

The top-up salary measure takes into account differences in living costs and aims to provide staff with the same purchasing power at all UN duty stations. 

Earlier in the day, several of the protestors voiced their frustration at the cut during a meeting with UN secretary general Antonio Guterres, who is in Geneva for an international donor conference on the crisis in Yemen. 

“Guterres told us that he doesn’t agree with the pay cut and that it is the opposite of a meaningful reform,” Ian Richards, the UN staff union’s executive secretaryexternal link, told swissinfo.ch.

Anger has been building among UN workers and bosses, who fear the move could endanger Geneva’s future attractiveness. On April 6, around 1,000 UN staff protested at a town hall meeting. 

On April 13, ten top UN agencies bosses in Geneva, including Michael Moller, head of the UN Office at Geneva, signed a letterexternal link sent to the UN’s International Civil Service Commissionexternal link (ICSC), which is behind the decision, requesting that it postpone its implementation of the salary cut until further information is provided on its impact.

“[The pay cut] will result in a significant reduction in remuneration for some 5,700 UN staff in the professional and higher level categories currently serving in Geneva…the financial implications for individual staff members and their families will be severe. Added to this are the negative effects on staff morale and adverse impact on the employment competitiveness of organisations which will likely have UN system-wide repercussions,” they wrote.

Richards said he believed the ICSC was ‘amenable’ to reviewing the proposed cut but further clarification was required.

New York baseline

The dispute follows a cost-of-living survey conducted in Geneva in October 2016. The ICSC, which fixes and balances global staff salary levels, recently rubberstamped the survey’s conclusions and agreed to lower the post-adjustment index of UN staff who serve in the French-speaking international city, one of the most expensive in the world. The cut is slated to be phased in this year.

“They want to bring UN salaries in Geneva down to New York levels. UN staff in New York lost purchasing power due to inflation and now they want to impose it on Geneva,” said Richards, who believes the ICSC survey used ‘questionable data’ to justify the cut.external link

“Staff are very upset as this comes after a series of other budget cuts and with the UN spending $1 billion on a Geneva headquarters that nobody wants.”

Basic annual UN salariesexternal link for so-called P1-P5 and D1-D2 staff range from $35,998-126,340 (CHF36,156-126,945) net. As the cost of living varies significantly among duty stations, a post adjustment figure is added to the basic salary designed to compensate the differences in living costs, thereby providing staff with the same purchasing power at all duty stations. The index is calculated according to the base station (New York) and adjusted for each duty station. Differences in living costs are measured through periodic surveys.

On top of the high salaries, most countries grant UN staff exemption from national income tax and staff can benefit from perks such as contributions towards education and housing.

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