This is an onsite, slightly edited republication of the complete G|O Briefing newsletter
Today in The Geneva Observer, a report on a new push to bring equality and fairness to the working conditions of the many consultants and individual contractors who work for the UN. There must be a better way, says the Consultants Coordinating Board (CCB)—an association with a name so awfully bureaucratic that the UN itself could have come up with it, but with a very noble purpose. The CCB is renewing its push to correct the situation; an effort that needs to be heard and supported.
“A New Dawn Breaks for the Global Trading Order”—that was Bloomberg’s headline on June 17th at the close of the WTO’s 12th Ministerial Conference. “Nations save the WTO from sliding into institutional paralysis; Trade deals shows (sic) compromise possible in age of fragmentation,” wrote Bryce Baschuk, its Geneva trade reporter, who waxed lyrical: “As a red sun rose over Lake Geneva Friday morning, exhausted trade officials from around the globe celebrated the fact that for the first time in recent memory the World Trade Organization was no longer in crisis.”
Baschuk, one of the most seasoned trade reporters in town, captured a widely shared opinion that MC12 had been a pivotal moment for the Organization, even if assessing the true significance of each of the agreements reached remains difficult.
Congratulatory statements can sometimes be more than merely self-serving, so it is worth carefully reading the closing remarks of the organization’s head, Dr. Ngozi: “The outcomes demonstrate that the WTO is, in fact, capable of responding to the emergencies of our time. They show the world that WTO members can come together, across geopolitical fault lines, to address problems of the global commons, and to reinforce and reinvigorate this institution. They give us cause to hope that strategic cooperation will be able to exist alongside growing strategic competition.” The italics are ours, and bring us to a piece by The G|O’s own trade observer supremo, Jamil Chade.
If Dr Ngozi herself was hugely instrumental in incessantly engaging with all parties—pushing here, probing there, cajoling when needed and calling out humbug when hearing it, sources tell us—what may also, in the end, have made the difference was the behind-the-scenes work of the US, bringing its full might to the negotiating table and engaging directly with China. And here, it’s perhaps worth noting Dr Ngozi’s precise words: It gives us “cause to hope”—a notion that Joe Biden is all too familiar with from his eight years as Obama’s sidekick. And so we say: “Yes WTO can.”
THE PRECARIOUS REALITY OF THE UN’S EXTERNAL EMPLOYEES
By Sarah Zeines
They represent nearly half of the UN’s global workforce, according to the latest figures available (published in a 2014 Joint Inspection Unit report), but Geneva’s UN consultants and individual contractors continue to suffer precarious employment conditions.
A freshly invigorated association has decided to address the issue. The Consultants Coordinating Board (CCB) hopes to bring more fairness to human resource management in Geneva’s multiple agencies. However, Swiss authorities—which require tax deductions and social charges from external UN workers—insist that it’s not their place to get involved.
A 6-to-12-month contract that offers neither health benefits nor sick leave, while requiring conventional 9-to-5 work hours and attendance at staff meetings. This is the daily bread of 45% of the UN’s workforce, according to a 2014 Joint Inspection Unit report. These numbers are amplified by a 2018 survey jointly conducted by the Interim Coordinating Board and Public Service International (PSI), which states that 36–40% of their salaries are deducted for tax, social security, and Swiss health insurance—though 44% already pay taxes in their home country—and 68% are women.
The problem has become such a plight throughout various UN agencies that the Consultants Coordinating Board (CCB), an association that has been striving to support the UN’s precarious workforce since 2018, is now accelerating its activities. As of the beginning of this month, CCB’s brand new website offers membership status and counsel to struggling external UN workers in Geneva.
“Similar to Uber’s business model, consultancy contracts give the UN all the employer benefits, without the responsibilities that are supposed to come with full-time positions,” says Caroline Dommen, a CCB board member. “Furthermore, in this case, we are talking about extremely skilled people; many of whom are not even paid Geneva minimum wage.” (Editor’s note: The Canton’s minimum wage is 23.27 CHF an hour or 4,033 CHF a month for a 40-hour week.) Thanks to the work undertaken by the CCB in 2018, as well as the joint survey, the UN now provides information on tax and other obligations. “Changes for the better are happening,” notes Dommen, optimistically.
THE UN’S WORKING POOR
Some are less buoyant in their assessment of the situation. ‘Nicole’ (not her real name) is one of them. The forty-something British national thought she had landed her dream job when she moved her family to Geneva last June. Hired by the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) for a one-year consultancy position, she organized her new life in high spirits. However, it wasn't long before her plans began to unravel, as her family experienced visa problems: "There is a lack of support from management. In my experience, no investment is made in people," she complains. “When I had a heartbreaking miscarriage towards the end of the year, I had to be back at work within four days. I ended up going back to England last January, before the term of my consultancy [had finished]. I intend on never working for the UN again.”
Nicole is not alone in her frustrations. ‘Eva’, a young International Trade Centre (ITC) consultant, has been jumping from one short-term contract to another since she started as an intern—a reality that will eventually come to an end, as her consultant status can only be renewed by her employer for a maximum of two years. The young woman thus lives in fear, not knowing whether her contracts will be renewed or not, often until the very last minute. All for an insufficient income. “Once I’ve finished paying the bills and food, I have a mere 20% of my salary left,” she laments. “Between the Office cantonal des assurances sociales de Genève (OCAS), to which consultants must register under an independent status, and my other monthly costs, I live a very frugal life.”
She adds: “According to my contract, I am hired for my expertise on a given project, yet I multitask daily in a wide array of areas. In other words, the UN overlooks or does not take into account its own rules.”
CONTRACTORS VERSUS CONSULTANTS
Why does the UN choose to hire so many external workers, rather than recruiting long-term staff members? Alessandra Vellucci, spokesperson for the United Nations Office at Geneva (not the entire UN system in Geneva), insists that there are major distinctions to be made between the different statuses. “The functions of the consultants fundamentally differ from those of the staff. The latter comply with a standing mandate and carry out recurrent functions while the former are recruited to carry out a specific service,” she says.
Distinctions must also be made among external workers, according to Vellucci: “Within the UN, there are two types of contractual services: those offered by consultants and those provided by individual contractors. Consultants are contracted to carry out a task requiring specific expertise that they have and that is not immediately available in the Secretariat and for which there is no continuing need. Individual contractors are recruited when there is a surge of work—for example, the organization of a major event—that the staff cannot perform without support. In both cases, we are speaking about an outsourced contribution to the work of the Secretariat.”
She concludes: “UN consultants provide contractual services. They are independent service providers, not UN staff, and they are not subject to staff levies. They are requested to have their medical insurance and are not required to relocate to Switzerland to perform their duties. Therefore they are subject to taxation based on the laws of their country of residence.”
HEFTY SOCIAL CHARGES WITH OR WITHOUT BENEFITS
Social security, on the other hand, is often a complex affair. Benefits depend on a variety of factors, such as one’s nationality or contract duration.
Jean-David Curchod, spokesperson for the OCAS—Geneva’s state authority responsible for collecting social charges—admits that there is a fine line between an employee and an external worker. “When an individual registers [themselves] at the OCAS […] we assess whether [they] should be treated as an employee of the international organization [they are] working for or as an independent contributor,” he explains. “To do so, the link between the person and the organization must be verified. Generally, if the former only has one contract for a unique organization, [they are] considered an employee.”
While some non-staff personnel are bound by exclusive contracts, others accumulate jobs, working for either non-UN entities or the private sector. “This creates a severe conflict of interest,” insists Nicole, who witnessed many co-workers garner contracts with other employers. “How can one be working on policymaking, while serving the interests of the private sector, impacted by the global policies being enforced by the UN?”
Regarding the hefty deductions applied to the salaries of underpaid external workers, Curchod acknowledges that the bill is often high, whilst also emphasizing the multiple benefits that come with these mandatory rates. “For individuals working for an employer that is not obliged to contribute, […] a total of 18.043% is subtracted from their salaries. Note that these payments can entitle people to services, even if they are abroad, such as pensions. Reimbursement of the dues is also possible in some cases—after having left Switzerland, having the nationality of a state that has not convened a social security convention with Switzerland or that has a social security convention with Switzerland that includes the reimbursement of dues, and not [being in receipt of] a pension at the time of the request.”
THE VISA CONUNDRUM
Money is not the only issue for those with contractor or consultant status. The Mission of Switzerland to the UN, which delivers Cartes de légitimation (CDL)—official international visas—to consultants and contractors, does not always grant permission to family members, as Nicole’s bad experience with Swiss migration authorities attests. Her mishap is just the tip of the iceberg, as some external workers are undocumented in between contracts, according to multiple sources. This is a situation that prohibits them from traveling, and from benefitting from a long list of services in Geneva, when applying for housing or agreeing a lease, for example. Consequentially, EU citizens are being increasingly prioritized within the UN workforce.
Why do Swiss authorities condemn these workers to such a precarious status, sometimes for months on end? “According to the current rules, a person hired by an international organization receives a CDL for the duration of his or her contract,” says Pierre-Alain Eltschinger, spokesman for the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs (DFAE). “If an individual finds a new job in an international organization within legal deadlines, the employer requests a new CDL from the Mission of Switzerland. The employee then needs to follow internal procedures, to make sure that he/she is registered at the Mission. If the rules are respected, the person should not find him/herself without a CDL for several weeks.”
IS AMERICA (FINALLY) BACK IN GENEVA?
By Jamil Chade
The WTO's 12th ministerial conference (MC12) last week afforded a provisional rescue to the institution, greeted by a global and collective sigh of relief. But the ability of the WTO to pull itself out of paralysis was not the only significant outcome of MC12. Another equally meaningful development happened behind the scenes, encapsulated in a few words to The G|O from a bleary-eyed Asian diplomat as he left the WTO’s building in the early hours of the morning following the final day of negotiations: “17 months after Joe Biden taking office, I think we can finally say: America is back.”
The slogan “America is Back” was used by Biden in his first days in office to mark a clean break with the nationalist, anti-multilateral posture of Donald Trump. But America’s allies have repeatedly and openly doubted the willingness of Washington to truly reengage with the multilateral system—particularly at the WTO. “At this juncture, the claim has not translated into real action,” a senior Western diplomat told The Geneva Observer a few months ago, when asked to assess the Biden administration’s self-proclaimed return.
On the first day of MC12, diplomats from Latin America admitted that they were concerned that the US delegation in Geneva would essentially remain silent, as Washington’s representatives had done so often in previous meetings. But “on day two, things changed considerably; they came onto the pitch to play,” a veteran ambassador told us.
The stakes were high, as the negotiations revolve around the notorious TRIPS waiver, which would temporarily suspend IP rights on COVID-19 vaccines, one of the most contentious issues before the WTO at MC12. Eventually, a bilateral deal with China brokered by Washington sealed the day and cleared the way for an agreement to be reached.
The US government insisted that any WTO agreement related to COVID-19 vaccines must explicitly exclude China from being able to benefit from a waiver on patents, since China has developed its own vaccine. Beijing offered to voluntarily opt out of an agreement, instead of accepting the US proposal for a written provision that would permanently exclude China from the pact. At the end of the day, a text was agreed that stated that “developing country members with existing capacity to manufacture COVID-19 vaccines are encouraged to make a binding commitment not to avail themselves of this Decision.” According to knowledgeable sources, it went all the way to the White House for final approval, and most likely to the highest level of the Chinese Communist Party as well. It also infuriated Big Pharma in the US.
“It’s hugely powerful when the United States and the Chinese delegates are like-minded on an issue,” the US ambassador to the WTO, Maria Pagan, told journalists. “If we’re saying the same thing, it’s a hugely powerful message to the membership. So, where we can work together, we will work together. That will help us when we’re going to be at odds with each other [again], which will happen, […] just due to the relationship,” she said.
On agriculture, the US was also central in pushing back India’s proposal to allow domestic subsidies and public stockholdings which would have affected exporting nations for years to come. A final agreement is still in the works, but for many developing countries opposed to the Indian proposal, the strong US stance gave them the strength to assert their own positions.
After 21 years of negotiations, the weight of the US also helped to unlock negotiations on fishing subsidies. As it stands now, countries will limit subsidies for illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing, while the agreement also contained a control on overfishing and financial aid to vessels fishing in unregulated international waters.
The notable change in the Biden administration’s attitude, moving from cautious to fully engaged, coincided with a rare example of bi-partisan pressure on the White House. On the opening day of the conference, the New York Times carried an Op-Ed by former trade negotiators from both sides of the US political spectrum calling for engagement from the White House.
“In the W.T.O. negotiations, the United States needs to lead the world in reaching a deal,” wrote Peter Allgeier, deputy U.S. trade representative and U.S. ambassador to the W.T.O. in the George W. Bush administration, and Michael Punke, deputy U.S. trade representative and U.S. ambassador to the W.T.O. in the Obama administration. “Sustained leadership by the United States will be critical—but major members such as China, the European Union and Japan, and the rest must act in the interests of sustainability,” they insisted.
Even Washington’s long-held misgivings about—and, under some past administrations, outright opposition to—the WTO’s Appellate Body, the organization’s highest dispute settlement mechanism, seem to be approached with a different perspective as the reality sets in: simply obstructing the system by opposing it will not give the US the influence and power it once had, nor will it prevent countries like China and India from advancing their interests and influence.
More broadly, true reform might finally come to the WTO and the way it operates now that the impetus is there. For Pagan, the US Ambassador to the WTO, this represents a “huge outcome.” The push for structural reforms, she told reporters, “is just two little paragraphs. I cannot tell you how many hours we spent. And everybody says we want reform. Everybody has a different conception of reform. But what we finally, I think, were able to get is that we are committed to having this conversation and to interacting with each other differently,” she said. “Reform needs to be open, inclusive, transparent and address the interests of all members. […] We are committed, and we demonstrated that, engaging in late night conversations with many. And that really counts,” she said.
GSD tells The G|O that it “will soon be sending another student to Georgetown” and that “one of our students just graduated from the Master’s programme at Georgetown.” On its website, Georgetown University lists its partnership agreement with GSD under its “Study Abroad” plan. At time of publication, and again over the last few days, repeated requests for comment by phone and email have remained unanswered by Georgetown University.
We also erroneously wrote: “The school also recently awarded the supposed King and Queen of Romania - since Romania doesn’t have a monarchy - with a Doctorate honoris causa.” GSD informs us that “that royal family returned to Romania after the fall of Ceausescu. By arrangement with the government there, the late King Michael’s eldest daughter holds the title, Princess Margareta, Custodian of the Romanian Crown.”
Apologies. We stand corrected.
Today's Briefing: Philippe Mottaz - Jamil Chade - Sarah Zeines