GENEVA The United Nations both here in Geneva and worldwide is relying increasingly on consultants with short-term contracts to do its work, seriously hampering the organization’s overall professionalism. Consultants, many who have come to Switzerland with their families from other countries, or may be on mission elsewhere in the world, are sometimes only told on a Friday that their contract will be renewed Monday. Not only do such personnel often lack basic social or employment rights enjoyed by Switzerland and other European countries, but such fickleness is leading to a situation whereby many aid workers wonder whether it is worth continuing to commit to the UN and its members agencies.
According to an internal document procured by the Swiss newspaper, Le Temps, nearly 40 percent of those working with the UN and its agencies are hired on short-term or “non-staff” contracts, creating a two-tier system with full-time or tenured employees with complete social benefits on the one hand, and independent consultants with few if any trimmings on the other.
Cited by Le Temps, the report maintains that this is largely because of the growing phenomenon among UN agencies to seek greater “flexibility” but also to save on budgets. “This situation is not only out of line with international principals regarding labour rights, but does not represent the values promoted by the UN,” the report says.
With the document destined for the General Assembly in New York, the Joint Inspection Unit (JIU), the only independent and outside oversight body mandated to inspect and evaluate the UN, considers the consequences of the current system both “problematic and counter-productive.” The UN agencies, the JIU notes, risk engendering an increasingly poor image, but also threaten employee stability and motivation. Furthermore, such practices could lead to an enormous number of law suits.
Based on investigations carried out in 2013 using collected information from UN operations in six different countries, notably the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Haiti, India, Thailand and Vietnam, the JIU maintains that such practices have little to do with the UN’s humanitarian missions. As reported by Le Temps, “the current situation is that the United Nations is working with a dual labour force: the first is granted all the rights and privileges attached to the job; the other enjoys few if any rights.” The document accentuates the unease that exists in mixed teams, whereby consultants provide the same work, but with fewer advantages. This undermines overall cohesion and produces a high rate of turnover among personnel.
A major portion of the report’s analysis concerns the UN system worldwide. Both the Rome-based UN Food and Agricultural Organization and UN Operations headquartered in Copenhagen have workforces with over 50 percent consultants. While some observers maintain that the situation is less pronounced here in Geneva, others say that it depends on the organization. The World Health Organization also has a high-level of non-staffers, and it has a reputation for contract delays or problems with continuity. According to some sources, this leads to enormous frustration and low morale with consultants uncertain whether to renew flat leases or whether they can afford to continue sending their children to international schools. The International Labour Organization, too, is criticized for failing to provide some of the very rights it is promoting among governments, companies and trade unions worldwide.
Another often highlighted concern is that the UN’s unequal treatment of consultants means that it is losing highly qualified personnel to the private sector or to other organizations. Nevertheless, as pointed out in Le Temps by Jacques Vigne of the UN’s staff organization, New Wood, in Geneva, the JIU represents one of the few organizations that has the ability to make the General Assembly listen.
During its investigation, however, the JIU found a severe lack of information regarding the situation of consultants. It found no fewer than 30 different statutes regarding non-staffers, with different contractual procedures, including pay scales, among the various UN agencies. The lack of a communal approach within the UN system, it maintains, tends to produce inequalities of personnel treatment regardless whether skilled or not. It also encourages fraud as well as nepotism. “All this is in violation of international labour principals and the values on which the United Nations is founded,” the report points out.
Salaries between full-time staffers and professional consultants can vary enormously, not only within a specific UN agency, but also within the UN system as a whole. Some agencies pay consultants well, taking into consideration possible time lapses between contracts, or that they do not necessarily have support mechanisms at their disposal, such as mobile phones, even when travelling on mission. Nor do many consultants receive social security, pension contributions or tax support despite working for years for the UN.
The JIU, which has produced 13 recommendations, maintains that the UN should not use short-term consultants on a long-term basis simply to save money. There should also be a global conformity within the UN system to resolve this situation. As noted by one senior UN source, “it is very much in the UN’s interest to maintain high professional standards. We need to have the best people possible and it makes sense to be consistent – and transparent – on all fronts. This sort of situation does not help.”