By Jenny Lei Ravelo for Devex.
The staff union of the International Labour Organization in Geneva is protesting its governing body’s decision on Thursday to implement salary cuts. The cuts, proposed by the U.N. International Civil Service Commission a year ago, would slash their annual salaries by 5.2 percent.
About two-thirds of ILO staff joined a strike starting Thursday, many of whom were present at the 332nd session of the governing body. The strike will last until Friday evening, said Catherine Comte-Tiberghien, president and chairperson of the staff union.
“We are on strike because the governing body yesterday at the ILO decided finally to implement the cut in Geneva. But we are also on strike today because we are representing our colleagues in the field,” she said.
The cuts have been a point of contention for staff of U.N. organizations around the world, but particularly for those in Geneva, which is one of the most expensive cities in the world. They question the ICSC methodologies that led to the proposed salary adjustments.
“It started with 7.5 percent … but because we already [took] a lot of actions, the ICSC decided unilaterally to reintroduce a gap closure measure in a sense, and then it [became] 5.2 percent,” said Comte-Tiberghien.
But the union insists there are flaws in the surveys done by the ICSC, and Comte-Tiberghien said several reports from statisticians have demonstrated that the surveys do not reflect their current realities.
“We want a reform of this organ, which is not transparent, which is not accountable, and which is absolutely not reliable,” the staff union chair said. “We will of course [take] legal actions, because we have sufficient proof and material to provide that all the methodology used by this commission is flawed. So all the organizations will have thousands of legal complaints. I’m not sure that the initial [decision] to make austerity measures without negotiating with the U.N. staff federation was a good strategy for these major donors.”
She acknowledged, however, that U.N. agency heads are also in a tight position. Had the agencies chosen to go against the cuts, there is a “clear threat” that donors would withdraw their contributions, she said.
“The commission is used by major donors — rich donors at the U.N. — as a trojan horse in a sense, to conduct austerity measures on the back of the staff,” she added.
Late last month, Devex reported that members of the U.N. staff unions met with Secretary-General António Guterres to air their grievances. Guterres subsequently shared the sentiment of reforming the ICSC, but the unions received no firm commitments during the meeting.
The strike disrupted the ILO board session, which was on its last day. But it provided an opportunity for the governing body to further delay a much-anticipated vote on the U.N. organization’s ties with the tobacco industry. The body was supposed to vote on the issue last week but, unable to reach an agreement, postponed the vote to the last day of their meetings — the same day they were to make a decision on the staff salary cuts. It has now been postponed again.
“The Governing Body has decided to defer the discussion on ILO cooperation with the tobacco sector and other issues to a later session because of a call by the ILO staff union for immediate strike action starting this afternoon,” it said in a statement.
Comte-Tiberghien wagered the discussion was postponed to the end of the session “on purpose,” as they were aware there was likely to be disruption. Some tobacco control advocates agreed, expressing frustration that the body seemed to have found an opportunity to delay the vote to its next session, which won’t take place until June.
“The ILO should have held this vote months ago. Instead of heeding the calls from the public health community, the governing body continues to kick the can down the road, seemingly finding any excuse to delay the decision,” Gigi Kellett, deputy director for campaigns at Corporate Accountability, told Devex. “It also seems hard to believe that the ILO, the agency that’s the intermediary for U.N. contract disputes, didn’t know that this strike was coming. This announcement does beg the question: Is it possible that the ILO governing body is using this strike to again delay the decision it has already been putting off for a year?”
Opposition to cutting ties with the industry largely came from the employers group and the African bloc. Sources note Uganda in particular made an impassioned speech that strongly opposed the ILO Secretariat’s proposal that they would no longer seek tobacco industry funding for their projects fighting child labor and promoting decent work once these expire within the year.
But in a letter to the government, Ugandan tobacco control advocates asked it to support the ILO Secretariat’s position to sever ties with the industry. The position Uganda took at the session, they said, is “contrary to Uganda’s policy by virtue of its being party to the WHO FCTC with specific reference to Article 5.3 and part viii of the Uganda Tobacco Control Act that prohibits government partnerships with the Tobacco Industry, any corporate social responsibility from the tobacco industry, and therefore Uganda’s current position at the ILO amounts to conflict of interest, which is a breach of our own law,” according to the letter.
Mary Assunta, senior policy advisor for the Southeast Asia Tobacco Control Alliance, meanwhile, emphasized that the problem is about more than just child labor.
“If growers were paid higher prices for their leaves, they would not be languishing in poverty and their children wouldn’t have to go to the fields. An integrated approach is needed — one that provides better protection for farmers, collective bargaining, higher prices for their produce, and safety from the harms of tobacco growing,” she told Devex. “The tobacco industry has not provided this. It is time to cut the ties.”