While the United Nations approaches a major change at the top in selecting a new secretary-general for the next five years and conflicts across the globe continue to erupt, criticisms of UN management seem only to grow.
The topic of management skills of the next secretary-general came up repeatedly during the public hearings held by the UN General Assembly in question put to all the candidates this year, but such information was solicited by member states to the candidates and not by UN staff members themselves. Answers tended to be general.
A look at how UN employees feel about how the world body has been managed internally under the current secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon, whose term expires on Dec. 31, finds discontent.
During the nearly 10 years — two terms — that Ban has held the highest office at the UN, the rights of staff members have diminished, many people who were interviewed for this article say. Employees, some contend, now feel vulnerable regarding working conditions across the UN Secretariat. That body represents the core of the UN, numbering 41,081 employees, says the latest report of the secretary-general on staff demographics, from December 2015.
During Ban’s tenure, collective bargaining by employees through the various different unions of the Secretariat has been eliminated, for starters. In this environment, staff members feel their needs have been seriously overlooked.
Eduardo Díaz, a Venezuelan who has been active in one of the UN’s main unions and has worked for 17 years as an administrative assistant for the UN’s Department of Management, said that the relationship between workers and the administration under Ban have been “in decline.”
The Department of Management, an office in the UN Secretariat that stays out of the public eye but directly affects staff members, writes policies and procedures and sets strategies for human resources, finance and budget and other services.
According to the president of the Staff Union and to employees that challenged her leadership in the most recent election of labor representatives, Ban’s administration has weakened the UN’s biggest union, based in New York headquarters.
“The decline of the staff management relations did not necessarily start under Ban, but I do believe that he has further eroded the staff rights and benefits,” said Díaz, who participated in one of the parties that competed in recent Staff Union elections in New York.
Other UN staff members have publicly noted the need to draw more attention to management problems in the secretary-general selection process.
A letter published in July and signed by more than 130 UN employees and posted on the website 1 for 7 Billion (a campaign advocating for a more transparent secretary-general selection process), said that “the ability of UN staff to overcome the odds and successfully fulfil [UN] mandates depends fundamentally on leadership, including the political weight derived from the UN’s positive standing in the world. More than any other single factor, it is the person of the Secretary-General who is determinant.”
The International Labor Organization, one of the UN’s earliest agencies, has been advocating for stronger worker protections, fairness in the labor market and good business practices for decades worldwide. It considers collective bargaining a fundamental right of workers.
But the UN decision to eliminate that right of Secretariat staff members came through a decision made by Ban in a 2013 document, announcing that it had revised its relationship with UN staff members, based on recommendations from the General Assembly.
The “bulletin” outlined a fundamental change to the staff’s relationship with management by deleting the phrase “shall agree by consensus” — collective negotiation — from the text.
The change occurred after the International Monetary Fund, as a recipe to improve the economic recovery in Europe, had suggested moving away from what it called market “rigidity,” a concept circulating most recently since 2012 and elaborated on in the 2014 book “Jobs and Growth: Supporting the European Economy.” The book, published by the International Monetary Fund, proposed to dismantle collective bargaining to create more jobs.
One large trade union, the Public Service International (PSI), based in France and representing more than 20 million workers in 669 unions in 154 countries, reacted to the UN’s decision to remove collective bargaining. The PSI approved a November 2013 resolution saying that eliminating the right to reach agreement by consensus with the UN’s staff union was “especially hypocritical coming from the global organization dedicated to peace, social justice and upholding the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”
Removing negotiating rights may go against the International Labor Organization guidelines, but because the UN is not a country, it cannot be a signatory to the agency’s conventions. As the Coordinating Committee for International Staff Unions and Associations of the UN system (CCISUA), an entity that encompasses 18 unions of the UN system representing more than 60,000 employees, said, staff members “are not protected by any national labour legislation or international conventions.”
An official in UN management who works for Yukio Takasu, the under secretary-general for management, confirmed that the UN “does not negotiate” with the unions but “consults” them on issues related to their welfare. He asked to remain anonymous because, he added, the “organization is very unforgiving.”
Since 2013, the UN has not had an operating union in its main headquarters. The New York Staff Union, the largest in the UN system, represents more than 25,000 employees, according to union representatives. But the December 2013 elections to choose the leadership of the union were marred by disagreements, making every step of the vote to renew the two-year presidency contested by at least two of the three parties that were running.
Given the differences, the party of the incumbent, Barbara Tavora-Jainchill, a professional-level employee with the United Nations Forum on Forests, called to organize new elections, while the party that claims to have obtained the highest number of votes rejected the proposal on the grounds that the voting was legitimate.
The victory of this party, led by Stephen Kisambira, an employee of the Department of Economic and Social Affairs who had previously presided over the Staff Union, was confirmed by an internal arbitration committee, but its rulings were not recognized by the UN administration. Kisambira insists that he is the current president.
The stalemate over the election was addressed publicly by Takasu, the under secretary-general for management, who said in May 2014 that the UN would intervene to find a solution to a “very, very unhealthy” situation. He said there were many issues the “UN would like to consult” with the New York union.
And while Tavora-Jainchill still holds the office of the president of the Staff Union in New York, traveling on behalf of staff members there and administering a budget, she considers her role ceremonial and said she was not consulted by UN higher-ups on issues related to staff members’ welfare, as set forth in the 2013 General Assembly document on management procedures.
For UN leadership, Tavora-Jainchill said, “it is wonderful to have a union that is weakened.”
A Brazilian national, Tavora-Jainchill added that she and staff members close to her have been “begging” for years to hold new elections, but Ban’s administration is “not serious” about the Staff Union.
The UN has approved several policies directly related to staff welfare since 2013, including flexible workspaces and compensation packages, without consulting the union.
First started as a pilot program in 2014, the flexible workspace policy established common areas where people below the director level would not have an assigned desk or space and is being implemented throughout the organization.
“We are left to believe that they consulted someone to reach this decision, which has a huge impact on the staff,” said Alberto Martin, who works for the UN Department of Management, “not to mention the effect that a shared workspace with no privacy would have in the products of the organization: reports, documents and letters.”
Meanwhile, as of Jan 1, 2017, the next secretary-general begins working with a five-year term. Facing the new leader will not only be wars, terrorism, famines, droughts, diseases, poverty and nearly unprecedented migratory flows, he or she will also face a long-disgruntled staff.
As Irka Kuleshnyk, president of the Staff Union in the UN offices in Vienna, said, “There has been a lack of understanding of what the staff needs in order to perform its functions in an optimal way, and to maximize the time and resources of the UN.”
“To have good staff-administration relations in the UN would not only be for moral reasons, but for practical reasons, to carry out the mandates of the organization,” Kuleshnyk added. “I would like to see a secretary-general that understands this.”
The letter from staff members posted on the 1 for 7 Billion site emphasized the uniqueness of their work in the field and behind desks, saying: “Every day, thousands of UN personnel travel into armed conflicts, work in displaced persons’ camps, investigate killings, torture and sexual violence, deliver food, shelter and medication, and strengthen rule of law and development.
We fight for human rights for all, respect for parliaments and the judiciary, the protection of sovereignty of vulnerable States, the credibility of elections, the health of mothers and children, for education, food, and water, for human habitats and the environment, for non-discrimination, for a global economy that benefits all, and much more besides.”
Madeleine Kuhns contributed reporting to this article.
This article was updated to include the name of the head of the party contesting the staff union elections.
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Maurizio Guerrero is an award-winning journalist who for 10 years was the bureau chief in New York City and the United Nations of the largest news-wire service in Latin America, the Mexican-based Notimex. He now covers immigration, social justice movements and multilateral negotiations for several media outlets in the United States, Europe and Mexico. A graduate journalist of the Escuela de Periodismo Carlos Septién in Mexico City, he holds an M.A. in Latin American, Caribbean and Latino Studies from the City University of New York (CUNY).