Speech by the Chairperson of the Staff Union – ILO Governing Body, PFA (5 March 2024)

Mr Chairperson,
Mr Director-General,
Ladies and gentlemen of the Governing Body,
Dear colleagues, and all of you here today, in this room or online,

There’s an old adage that says “never twice without thrice”, so here I am once again privileged to address you; always with the apprehension that is certainly necessary when it comes to speaking on behalf of all my colleagues, more and more of whom are testifying to the confidence and the need to have an organization that represents them, since the ILO Staff Union now has more than 2,100 members. As you, the leaders of the organizations representing the world of work, know better than I do, membership can either indicate that our members are preparing themselves to defend their rights, or that they wish to recognize that we have met their expectations through the progress we have made.

This ambivalence is very real for us today in the performance of our duties in the service of social justice, and in many respects. Indeed, how can we continue to remain faithful to our commitment to neutrality and our duty of silence in the face of upheavals on the international scene that outrage us, particularly when the status of United Nations civil servant means nothing in the face of the bombs that recently killed more than 150 of our colleagues in the performance of their duties? How can we find the inner strength to remain resilient and carry on working for years when a military regime turns a deaf ear to the injunctions of the organization we serve and ultimately continues to flout the human rights we defend? How can we remain faithful to our profound belief in the power of social justice when conflicts continue to erupt or get bogged down in many countries, leading us to ask ourselves whether we haven’t learned anything, at least in the 100 years since the ILO was founded. Next week, in the Institutional Committee, you will be examining a number of reports on the monitoring of the situation in various countries, which clearly show the disarray in which we can find ourselves, even if accompanying measures are taken for the staff in the countries, such as those mentioned, for example, in document GB.350/INS/13 concerning the aggression committed by the Russian Federation against Ukraine from the point of view of the mandate of the International Labour Organization. It is all the more important to be able to rely on the fact that, in the words of our Director-General in his Preface to the ILO Programme Implementation Report 2022-23, PFA/1, “As we move forward, the ILO will need to strengthen action to place its overarching objective of social justice at the centre of all national and international policies ” and stressing on the other hand that “the clear and urgent need for greater social justice can only be addressed through stronger global solidarity, increased policy coherence and improved cooperation and partnerships with other institutions and actors”.

Coherence is certainly very difficult to grasp, in an organizational context that appears both segmented and blurred. Segmented, because the number of rules we have to comply with seems to be increasing all the time, and the rules are dichotomous: management rules – human and financial – differ according to the sources of funding for our activities, while we are increasingly called upon to pool our resources in order to have a greater impact. There is also a lack of clarity, since the reporting lines are still undefined for a number of departments or units undergoing restructuring at different levels, or since recruitment does not systematically follow the same processes for equivalent grades. The current skills inventory exercise, as referred to in a number of documents on the agenda (internal audit report, report on the implementation of the ILO’s human resources strategy), is also raising a number of questions among colleagues, who recognize its usefulness in principle but raise questions about the consequences it could have on their jobs.

When complexity increases, the tendency is to reinforce control and multiply rules, which ultimately leads to a withdrawal and rigidity that leaves no room for imperfection, and for improvisation which would allow for innovation – ultimately to being human. You may have noticed it in this building: colleagues’ doors are often closed – not often because they’re working elsewhere, but because colleagues lock themselves away on work deadlines and video calls around the world, finding less and less time for social interaction in our workplaces. We are also losing sight of what respect in the workplace means: It is therefore not insignificant that the results are mixed, as indicated in the Progress Report on the implementation of the ILO Human Resources Strategy 2022-2025 (GB.350/PFA/10), under the objective of a Respectful and empowering environment, in particular with regard to the “responsibility of line managers to promote a safe working environment, a good work-life balance and individual well-being”; and this at a time when every worker should be able to enjoy his or her fundamental right to a safe and healthy workplace. The number of cases concerning allegations of harassment or breaches of conduct referred to the Head of Internal Audit or dealt with by the Human Resources Department is all the more worrying, both in terms of the number of cases that were ultimately unfounded and therefore raise questions about a culture that perhaps leads too quickly to denunciations, and in terms of the number, still too high, of allegations of harassment that are ultimately founded. The Staff Union deplores, just as much as the Administration, the number of situations leading to complaints of breaches in professional relations and harassment, including between colleagues.

This reality leads us all the more to acknowledge with satisfaction the adoption of the three-year plan on mental health and well-being, as mentioned in the same document. The Staff Union contributed with interest to the development of this plan, strongly calling for the implementation of one of the first measures, risk assessment. First and foremost, we need to be able to take stock of the situation and analyse the causes that lead many colleagues to no longer be able to cope and to distance themselves from a professional environment that could, on the contrary, give them fulfilment and meaning. The causes of such situations are certainly multiple and complex, and it is up to the Organization, as the employer, to be able to analyse and remedy them when they are work-related.
To implement this plan, and to enable the Organization to respond to the management needs of this most precious resource in the service of social justice – people – it is regrettable that we have to be ever more parsimonious, economical, and compromise, at the risk of losing effectiveness and ambition. In the coming months, we will have to prepare the proposals for the next Programme and Budget, and it is already foreseeable that difficult choices will have to be made in prioritizing the actions to be taken, while still wanting to meet all the needs you have expressed to us and our desire to go ever further in promoting social justice. We are currently suffering from a lack of resources for a number of key functions, such as human resources management, conflict prevention and management, and the necessary support for colleagues. The risk is that we end up wanting to “do it all”, without having the means to do so.
Finally, I would like to refer, in line with the human resources strategy, but also the document INS/4 Mid-term report on the implementation of the ILO Action Plan for Gender Equality 2022-2025, to the current situation regarding diversity within the Office and in particular gender equality. The observation is that, and I quote, “The ILO is moving closer to achieving gender parity regarding the percentage of women occupying positions at the P5 level and above, which increased from 34 per cent in 2009 to around 43 per cent in 2023, surpassing the target of 40 per cent”; this observation does indeed seem encouraging, and is highlighted in several documents. The two reports go on to make identical recommendations, calling for efforts to be maintained and “to ensure that progress in this area continues at all levels”. Indeed… this success in achieving parity at senior levels has been achieved at the expense of internal progression and recognition of the skills of the colleagues I represent, who often see even fewer prospects for advancement, or who wonder why only 1 in 3 appointments has led to career advancement. Don’t we have the skills and the merit to be recognized by our employer? Similarly, there is still a huge disparity between job categories – it was mentioned that on Women’s Day last year, one of our colleagues deplored the fact that he had no female colleagues in his team, at the logistical level… Finally, on this subject, I can only deplore the fact that the ILO does not wish to look a little more internally when it is time to celebrate gender equality. The Staff Union has not been invited by the Administration to the celebrations to be held this week to mark 8 March…
So yes, we need solidarity and humanity.
Ladies and Gentlemen of the Governing Body, it is with this desire to respond to the growing inequalities between members of staff that we are moving forward, with the Administration, on a programme of reforms involving the harmonization of working conditions and greater mobility. It is with this in mind that document PFA/9, Amendments to the Staff Regulations, is submitted to you. This document proposes amendments to the Staff Regulations which are the result of negotiations undertaken at an intense pace since last December, on the basis of a list of measures which should keep us busy throughout this year. These negotiations are being conducted in a constructive spirit, seeking to overcome any obstacles in order to understand the requirements of each party, since ultimately it is clear that our common interest is to ensure that every colleague working for the ILO has access to the same recognition and the same working conditions, regardless of the sources of funding. It is also clear to all parties that ILO staff want to be able to develop their careers and benefit from opportunities for mobility, whether geographical or functional.
This set of measures should make it possible to recognize that service to the ILO is just as valuable when one is assigned to a development cooperation project as when one pays compulsory contributions to the Organization’s budget. These measures should also make it possible to reduce the precariousness of our colleagues assigned to projects, whose medium or long-term prospects are reduced because they are restricted to the longevity of a specific project. I hope to present you with other measures in November, which will have to be negotiated in the meantime.
These advances finally enable the ILO to make progress towards bringing its human resources management into line with the evolution of its operations in its second centenary: the ILO’s mandate today is fulfilled as much through its development cooperation activities throughout the world as through normative monitoring, the different aspects being deeply dependent and integrated. It will certainly be necessary in the future to go even further in integrating the human resources framework, just as is being done at the programming level. The Staff Union certainly still has battles to fight … But first things first …
I’d like to thank the Director-General for his support, and I’d particularly like to thank my colleagues in the Human Resources Department and the Staff Union’s elected representatives, who devote their time and passion to finding solutions and bringing the very principles of social dialogue and collective bargaining to life internally.
Ladies and gentlemen of the Governing Body, you can be proud of this achievement, and I hope that it will only strengthen your confidence in us.

Thank you for your attention, and I wish you a nice lunch.

Séverine Deboos
Chairperson, Staff Union Committee