Speech of the Chairperson of the Staff Union – PFA, 31 October 2023


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

This is the second time I have addressed you as Chairperson of the Staff Union of this Organization, which is once again bringing you together within its walls; walls which, as you can see, are gradually revealing their new youthfulness. I would like to thank the workers who work to give us all, whether we are employees of the Organization, decision-makers like yourselves, or visitors to conferences or workshops, the best possible material conditions for productive, efficient and enjoyable work. They work long hours to provide us all with the necessary surroundings and comfort.

We are indeed privileged. This is a very real feeling among the colleagues I represent. Privileged by our working environment in Geneva but also in many other places of employment; privileged by the fact that we have an employment contract, a salary level and associated rights that are appreciable; privileged above all by the meaning of what we do. It seems to be a “luxury” today to be able to work to defend, build and promote the values of social justice, equality, non-discrimination, freedom of association and respect for human dignity at work. We’re proud of that, and it’s what keeps us going.

This awareness of being privileged is what often stops us from complaining about things that aren’t going well. Because, of course, not everything is rosy in the life of an international civil servant: many colleagues in different places of employment are seeing their purchasing power eroded by inflation, the devaluation of their national currency and the rising cost of living, while the new methodologies adopted by the ICSC have not yet been able to prove their worth, will potentially not be sufficient to cope with fluctuations and suffer from administrative inertia which prevents them from having the necessary responsiveness. We are also concerned about the potentially adverse consequences of the current review of the remuneration system by the United Nations common system.

It’s also difficult to continue working when the contractual norm for the vast majority of colleagues is a maximum of 1 or even 2 years, renewable from 1 month to 3 months, making it difficult to plan one’s life over the medium term. Difficult, finally, when the prospects for career development and recognition of performance are increasingly slim. Difficult still when many colleagues find themselves in contexts of war, conflict and human rights violations: in these situations we are “privileged” to have an organization that takes the same care of its national and international colleagues, which is not the case with other sister agencies of the United Nations. On the agenda are a number of subjects relating to the Organization’s response to the dramatic situations in which our colleagues are present and continue tirelessly to defend our values of human dignity: Ukraine, Russia, Myanmar, Afghanistan, Sudan, Occupied Palestinian Territory, Jerusalem, etc. There have been too many messages of solidarity from the Union this year. Who would have thought that I would want the Union to have to make less frequent calls for solidarity… But…. Our leitmotif is well tried and tested: “let’s not complain, we’re much better off than most of the population”. And so we continue, with self-sacrifice and passion, to serve this mandate that we hold so dear.

The past year has been precisely a search for the meaning to be given to this mandate, which is evolving according to the direction that you, our constituents, give it and within the approved programme and budget framework. The staff followed the budget approval process last June with mixed feelings of apprehension and confidence. This search for meaning has been reflected in interpersonal relations, between staff and management, and in the way we work. A number of structural changes are underway in the organization to adjust, transform, rationalize and maximize the way we work. Although the Director-General’s intention on his arrival was not to carry out any major restructuring, the fact remains that change is the order of the day in many departments, units and projects at head office and in the field, and that many colleagues are still finding it difficult to find meaning and their place in these processes.

We also had to reinvent ourselves to implement the new flexible working arrangements policy. We are proud of this: this policy is a joint commitment by the Administration and staff to affirm that trust must be at the heart of working relationships, that it is essential to find a balance between aspirations, individual interests and team and collective dynamics; this policy is also a reaffirmation that our workplaces are changing and that our working methods must also evolve, while of course preserving the essentials.

Finally, it was the desire to be able to make progress on long-stalled negotiation issues that led us, along with the Administration, to approach certain negotiations in a new way, putting aside positions that seemed irreconcilable in order to identify, above all, our common interests and move forward constructively on the basis of shared interests. It is interesting to note that this desire to move forward has led us, along with the Administration, to take the time to revisit the very foundations of a collective bargaining process: ensuring that the principles of good faith, mandate and delegation of authority are shared by all the parties to the negotiations, and that we also have the necessary mechanisms in place to settle any differences that may arise, being able to call on the necessary and relevant means of expressing divergence or opposition. It is important that the processes are in place, understood and adhered to by everyone before embarking on negotiations. It seems to me a happy coincidence that the subject of collective bargaining is on the agenda of this Governing Body.

As a result, this year we were able to make progress on the review of the contractual arrangements and agree on a list of measures to be implemented, which should ensure equal treatment for all colleagues, whether they are financed by voluntary contributions – as is the case for the vast majority of staff today – or by compulsory contributions. It is intolerable that the majority of colleagues are in precarious situations. But… of course, the refrain remains well “let’s not complain, we’re privileged”. It’s all about benchmarking.

For the ILO Staff Union, it is clear that we can only aspire to the best when it comes to working conditions and social dialogue, and we have a duty, along with the Administration, to set an example. It would be unacceptable, once again, for “the shoemaker to be the worst-shod”. We must have the means to achieve our ambitions, while of course remaining realistic about what is possible. The work ahead of us to turn commitments into reality is certainly colossal, but the Union has confidence in the will of the Director-General and his Administration to ensure that dialogue can continue and, if necessary, venture towards creative proposals to guarantee the staff who serve you decent and sustainable working conditions over the long term, and why not – let’s dream – exemplary working conditions and become the model to follow throughout the common system.

It is of exemplarity that I wish to speak as I consider certain documents on the agenda of this Governing Body meeting. You will shortly be considering document PFA/8 amending Chapter XII on the disciplinary rules of the Staff Regulations, followed by document PFA/10 on the powers – among others – of the Administrative Tribunal with regard to the common system. These documents deal with discipline and justice.

As civil servants in the international civil service, we must indeed behave in an exemplary manner. The Code of Ethics of the International Civil Service states it well in its introduction: “It is therefore incumbent upon international civil servants to observe the highest standards of conduct, for it is ultimately the international civil service that will enable the United Nations system to build a just and peaceful world.” It therefore goes without saying that our workplaces should be exemplary in their mutual respect, free from all forms of violence and harassment, and ensure the independence of international civil servants in the performance of their duties. It is important to be able to put in place the necessary instruments to respond to these unacceptable situations, but above all, to work to ensure that they do not happen: it is too late for the person and for the institution when the damage has been done. The efforts of the Human Resources Department cited in Document INS/6 “Review of the implementation of the strategy to give effect to the resolution concerning the elimination of violence and harassment in the world of work” will have to be stepped up. Yesterday you considered document PFA/6 with the scheduled reports for the Joint Inspection Unit of the United Nations. Many of the subjects which are the subject of recommendations or will be examined next year have a direct or indirect link with this issue and should take into account the importance of better prevention and above all managerial responsibility. In any case, we hope that next year we will be able to negotiate new measures to prevent and deal with violence in the workplace, as we are indeed witnessing too many situations of suffering among colleagues.

This is a priority to which we must devote the necessary time. It is therefore welcome that the review of jurisdictional issues under the United Nations common system in document PFA/10 recommends that no follow-up action be taken. Indeed, it is time to put behind us this debate on modifying the jurisdictional structure of the United Nations system and calling into question the competence of the ILO Tribunal. The Staff Union has clearly expressed its opposition to a change in jurisdiction, a position that is indeed shared by many stakeholders and which would make justice, for ILO staff, very distant and remote.

The amendments to the Staff Regulations that have been submitted to you concerning disciplinary measures emphasize a culture of progressiveness and correction. We want to recognize that we have the right to make mistakes, and that the Organization must allow us to acknowledge these mistakes – when they are acceptable – and to learn from them. It has often become easier to blame the other person, or the system – yes, IRIS is often an easy target! – and to recuse oneself rather than admit to being wholly or partly responsible for a mistake. Setting an example certainly also means acknowledging that we are not perfect, but that we are acting in good faith. This review also implies a managerial ability to listen to colleagues, to understand why the error occurred and to consider the appropriate response commensurate with the error committed. We are in a context where we are asked to do ever more, to meet ever more demands and priorities, where fear becomes the driving force: fear of not being able to compete with other organizations that talk about decent work, fear of not mobilizing enough resources, fear of seeing artificial intelligence replace us. We are in a context where control and reporting mechanisms are becoming so pervasive that the time we have to do “our job” is becoming increasingly precious and scarce. It’s becoming difficult to recognize and admit that, at the end of the day, we are “just” humans, motivated by our desire to meet the needs of the Organization.

But of course, “let’s not complain, we’re privileged”.

Yes, in many ways we are.

In the end, I’m privileged to have been able to speak to you today – and I have to say… you’re still definitely impressive, but I’m confident in your benevolence.

I am also privileged to have been trusted by all my colleagues to speak for them, and I am proud of that.
But above all and finally … When you, the representatives of the world of work, take decisions and we, the civil servants, implement them, let us not forget what a privilege – and responsibility – it is for us, in keeping with our Constitution, to promote the social justice that is essential to lasting and universal peace.

Thank you for your attention
Séverine Deboos
Chairperson, Staff Union Committee