Hundreds of United Nations staff in Geneva from various agencies and services took part in a work stoppage on Friday over a proposed 7.7% cut to salaries, the equivalent of almost a month's pay.
“This will be the first stoppage, and hopefully there will be many more until the message gets through to Michael Møller [Director General of the UN in Genevaexternal link] and others that the cuts are unacceptable,” a UN staff member who preferred to remain anonymous told swissinfo.ch.
An estimated 9,500 staff work for the UN family in Geneva at either the Palais des Nations European headquarters or at one of the numerous UN agencies dotted around the city, such as the World Health Organization (WHO). It is unclear exactly how many staff downed tools and took part in the two-hour work stoppage from 3-5pm on Friday.
But around 600 angry UN staff gathered at a meeting room inside the Palais des Nations to show their support, banging on tables, waving ‘Don’t kill Geneva’ banners and shouting ‘No pay cuts’. The strike had various practical consequences, including the suspension of an afternoon session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva.
Friday’s action marks an escalation in the fight against a proposal to lower UN Geneva–level salaries by reducing a so-called ‘post adjustment index” for professional staff working in the city.
The idea came from the International Civil Service Commission (ICSC)external link, a group of independent experts, which surveyed the cost of living in eight UN locations. It said the 7.7% salary cut for Geneva-based staff would align them with colleagues in New York, where purchasing power has dropped.
The UN Office in Geneva (UNOG) Staff Coordinating Councilexternal link says it hopes the stoppage will send a strong message to the ICSC and UN management in New York that staff in Geneva will not accept the cut. It claims the salary decision is based on ‘erroneous calculations, inconsistent with prevailing economic data, and motivated we believe by political considerations’. The union warns that cuts could endanger Geneva’s future attractiveness for UN professionals.
Free to protest
Prior to the strike action, Møller told staff they were allowed to meet freely on UN premises to express their grievances in a non-disruptive manner. But he warned that action such as a work stoppage or other collective action may be considered as ‘unauthorized absence in line with staff regulations and rules’.
He also urged staff not to jeopardize the outcome of ongoing discussions with the ICSC about the pay cut. The ICSC will be meeting in Vienna this July during which it has indicated it may review its decision.
Friday’s action follows a series of protests in Geneva, as well as an online petitionexternal link. Heads of UN agencies based in the Swiss city have also questioned the calculations and called for postponing the cuts.
The salary measure is set to be phased in from August, but it has already been implemented for new or temporary UNOG staff with renewed contracts.
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 city, one of the most expensive in the world.
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.
Ian Richards, the UN union executive secretary, has estimated that the average gross monthly Geneva salary for senior staff subject to the proposed cut was CHF10,000-12,000 ($10,000-12,000).
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.
While many UN staff back the union, not everyone working at the Palais des Nations complex agreed with Friday’s stoppage.
“You won’t find me crying over their situation,” said one staff member. “People here don’t pay tax, they get help finding an apartment, access to a duty-free shop on site and many other perks, come on!”