The precarious reality of the UN's external employees

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.


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.”


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.”


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.”


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.”

- SZ