, Geneva, Switzerland, May 16 – On the list of workers facing pay cuts, United Nations staff in Geneva are unlikely to garner much sympathy.
UN employees are by contract the highest paid civil servants in the world.
Their tax-free salaries are often complemented by multiple benefits including subsidies for rent, healthcare and dependants, along with educational grants covering part of their children’s private school fees up through one university degree.
Compensation can vary widely based on seniority and other factors, but an employee in Geneva with three children and roughly a decade of experience could take home $147,000 (132,000 euros), including salary and dependants’ allowances.
If private school tuition for the employee’s children ran to $40,000, the UN would cover about $30,000.
A 7.5 percent pay cut due to hit Geneva-based UN employees in August has triggered fierce resistance and stirred broader questions about the world body’s future in the face of mounting financial pressures.
Even before US President Donald Trump took office, there were calls from major donors for the UN to tighten its belt.
The United States is the largest UN contributor by far — funding roughly a quarter of its operations.
Trump, a vocal UN critic, has proposed a budget calling for significant foreign aid reductions.
Some opponents of the looming Geneva salary cut say geopolitics may have influenced the decision.
“I think maybe it’s an anticipation of cuts coming from the US and maybe trying to show the US Congress that it takes some of the criticism seriously,” said Edward Patrick Flaherty, a lawyer with Schwab, Flaherty & Associates in Geneva who specialises in cases against international organisations like the UN.
Flaherty, who said he will represent staff if the salary row moves to court, argued that instead of trimming workers pay the UN should save by squandering less money.
“There is so much waste in the UN system… and probably abuse,” he told AFP.
– Month’s pay lost –
The pay cuts were recommended by the International Civil Service Commission, a body appointed by the UN General Assembly which governs UN employees.
It found that although Geneva is extremely pricey, the cost of living adjustment given to staffers in the Swiss city was excessive and unfair to other UN duty stations.
Union leaders have rejected those findings and have mounted several challenges, including possibly labour action.
“We are talking about almost of month (of lost salary) in one of the world’s most expensive cities”, said Ian Richards, who heads the UN staff union in Geneva.
He agreed with Flaherty that the push to cut was likely coming from some member-states, rather than within the UN.
But he also suggested that Geneva may have been the first target because of tensions with headquarters in New York.
“There is this thing of how do we attack the Francophone duty station,” Richards told AFP.
“A French-speaking office with a Francophone culture… doesn’t always resonate so well in New York.”
UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, based in New York, has come out against the cuts as has UN-Geneva chief Michael Moller and the heads of all agencies based here.
But even if this proposed cut is amended, there is consensus that UN spending will be reined in, as the cost of responding to major international emergencies continues to soar.
– ‘Happy days’ over? –
In an interview with AFP late last year, Moller described the UN and its generous benefits package as “the last social democratic system in the world”.
While forcefully defending the UN’s work and arguing that concerns about waste were overblown, Moller conceded that “if our neighbours are not being given the same (compensation), there is a limit to how many years we can continue.”
Guterres, who took office in January has promised broad UN reform but has not yet detailed his plans. He has also urged Trump against forcing him to make knee-jerk cuts.
Guterres became known as an efficient bean-counter while based in Geneva as head of the refugee agency UNHCR after moving some support staff from Switzerland to far-cheaper Budapest.
Flaherty, the labour lawyer, maintains that hitting mid-career employees with a drastic pay cut is unfair and possibly illegal.
But he said that given the UN’s undeniable resource constraints you could make clear to new hires that they will not profit from the same benefits as their predecessors.
“For new recruits, you could just say ‘happy days are over'”.