UN berated over employment practices

Geneva-based trade union, New Wood, says a quarter of UN employees are on short-term contracts Keystone

A Geneva-based trade union has criticised the United Nations for its failure to respect labour laws.

This content was published on March 21, 2002 - 14:06

New Wood says it is shocked by the number of UN employees in Geneva who are maintained on short-term or temporary contracts, which deny them many of the benefits enjoyed by other staff.

The union puts the number of people in this precarious position at some 4,000 people. It says around 25 per cent of those employed by the UN in Geneva are on short-term contracts. That rises to 40 per cent in some agencies.

No Man's Land

Some of these are employed on a temporary basis because they are involved in short-term projects. But New Wood is concerned about those staff whose contracts are constantly renewed, maintaining them, according to the union's president Jacques Vigne in a "legal no man's land".

Unlike other UN employees, they are not entitled to move their families to Geneva to live with them, they have no accident or sickness cover, no social insurance and, above all, no job security.

They can but dream of financial help in paying rent and school fees - a perk enjoyed by many UN employees.

Jacques Vigne says that calling these workers "temporary" is misleading, since many of them have been in their posts for many years.

"How can we have the Nobel Prize and at the same time, completely ignore human rights and labour standards," he told swissinfo. "It's absolutely surreal."

Constant fear

One woman, who has worked for two different UN agencies, speaks of having had her contract renewed 14 times in the space of six years. She says the length of these contracts have ranged from a few weeks to 11 months - a period above which employees are entitled to the benefits enjoyed by "permanent" staff.

Vigne says these "long-term temporary workers" live in perpetual fear of not having their contract renewed and being expelled from Switzerland: "It's a Sword of Damocles hanging over them," he says.

The existence of this employment twilight zone in the heart of the UN system is an embarrassment for the world body and its agencies, not least the International Labour Organisation, an agency charged with overseeing employment standards around the world.

The ILO has set out to tackle the problem, and has managed to reduce the number of people it employs on a short-term basis from 120 workers 18 months ago to 27 today.

Abusing the system

"It's not the short-term contracts themselves, but the abuse of short-term contracts that's the problem - when people get trapped on short-term contract for a long period of time," Alan Wild, the head of human resources at the ILO told swissinfo.

He says the ILO has introduced rules that prevent anyone working for ILO from having a succession of short-term contracts for more than two years.

"Our view is that the ILO cannot promote labour standards that we're not prepared to apply ourselves," Wild explains. He says the ILO has spoken to other UN agencies about addressing the issue.

"There's no problem with using short-term contracts to cover short-term projects," he says. "But there is a problem when people persist in using short-term contract after short-term contract rather than employing people on a permanent basis."

As a supranational organisations, the various parts of the UN system are not subject to any national labour legislation. Their workers are therefore protected only by the internal conditions of service of the agency concerned.

Other UN agencies acknowledge the problem surrounding the employment of temporary workers, but argue that they are in a no-win situation.

"Donor countries - who contribute 40 per cent of our budget - keep a watchful eye on our personnel costs," says the World Health Organisation's executive director, Maryan Baquerot.

"We really have no choice. Either we refuse the donation and deprive people of polio vaccines, for example, or we accept it and take on temporary staff to cut personnel costs," he says.

Baquerot says the WHO is looking to halve the number of temporary staff it employs by this summer, and to give those who remain more rights.

by Roy Probert

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