Unions continue to put UN under fire for not respecting workers’ rights


Recent changes to how United Nations staff negotiate with management contradict the organisation’s own conventions and may jeopardise employees’ security, unions warn.

As of July this year management must ‘consult’ rather than enter mandatory negotiations with staff on issues such as the distribution of budget cuts and rotation policy.

The new rules replaced a prior agreement that was introduced by secretary-general Ban Ki-moon in 2011.

“There’s no doubt that there was a form of collective bargaining but it is now no longer in existence,” said Sharan Burrow, General Secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC).

“It’s about weakening the power of unions,” said Ian Richards, Vice-President of the UN’s Staff Management Committee.

“Member states see staff unions as an alternative centre of power, and they want to be able to tell the Secretary-General what to do.”

In an open letter to Ban, General Secretary of the UK’s Trades Union Congress (TUC), Frances O’Grady noted the International Labour Organisation – a UN agency – protects freedom of association and the right to bargain collectively.

Both rights are enshrined in the Declaration of Philadelphia, which contains the aims and objectives of the ILO.

In response, the UN’s under-secretary-general for management, Yukio Takasu, said it is the General Assembly that establishes workers’ conditions through the UN Staff Regulations, which do not include a right to collective bargaining.

The General Assembly voted in April to amend the rules on staff negotiations to reflect the less stringent regulations.

In a letter to O’Grady, British foreign secretary William Hague said “the Government fully supported this decision as protecting the established principle that the UN’s member states should have the ultimate say on important [human resources] issues.”

However, Richards said concerns that under the previous framework unions could become co-managers with veto power over administrative changes were unfounded.

“Member states thought staff unions had the right of veto. Therefore they said ‘this goes too far, we can’t have this’. We don’t know how they got that understanding but it’s certainly the basis under which they passed that resolution.”

A campaign opposing the changes has attracted support from unions such as the BTUC, ITUC and American Federation of Teachers.

“One of the concerns global unions have is that if the UN, which is supposed to uphold labour rights, doesn’t uphold them and implement them in its own house, then governments could take that as a cue to remove them in the national context,” Richards said.

Both Equal Times and LabourStart have launched campaigns to email the secretary-general urging him to reverse his decision.

Ban recently met with unions to propose a working group be established to draft a new agreement governing relations between staff and management.

“We want to see what the scope of the working group could be,” Richards said. “If the scope is limited to just rewriting what currently exists it would be of less interest to us.”

Richards said the current avenues for staff to raise security concerns through the Inter-Agency Security Management Network were insufficient because this did not allow them to negotiate or make their own proposals.

“Management wants to send staff more to the field but we can’t negotiate on what the security standards would be,” he said. “What kind of vehicles they would have, whether they would be protected by professional UN staff or by private security contractors, which brings in its own problems.”

The office of the secretary-general did not respond to request for comment.