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UN Negotiating Delegation meeting, 9 November 2013, Rome

UN Negotiating Delegation meeting, 9 November 2013, Rome


Present: Jacques Coly, Isabelle Marbot, Andrew Brookes, Nerio Guerrero, Roxana Dazin, Claudia Bishopp, Phil Smith

De-recognition of staff reps’ right to collective bargaining at the UN

The current crisis affects the whole UN system and not just interpreters; we have no direct influence on events but changes in terms and conditions could affect us, and the new travel arrangements are a good example.

The Secretary General of the UN claims that his action in de-recognizing bargaining rights was done at the bidding of the member states, but that is at best only partly true. The UN unions are currently talking to the member states and are hopeful that the UN management might reconsider, but there is nothing hard and fast at the moment.

The UN Sec Gen has received thousands of protests, including from the AIIC president, via an online petition (and most recently from the American teachers’ union).  There is talk of involving the ILO (because of its conventions on the right to form a union, to free collective bargaining) but everyone is being cautious.  The UN is not a state and as such has not ratified the ILO’s core conventions, so we are in uncharted waters.

AIIC cannot act independently, but we shall keep in close touch with the UN staff and cooperate with anything they might decide to do.  We will also establish a line of communication via the AIIC Staff Interpreters’ Committee.

Although these events at the UN are outside our remit, they are certainly now part of the environment in which we operate.

Non-signature of the Agreement

As we have reported, the UN has neither withdrawn its reservation introducing a 31-day trigger for monthly contracts instead of the previous 60 days, nor provided the legal base for the provision that it had promised to give us earlier this year.  We are forced to conclude that they will continue to stall; indeed we doubt there ever was a legal base.

We looked at all the options open to us and concluded that in the light of the current situation at the UN and of our continuing problems with compliance in some parts of the world, we needed the Agreement to be signed.

We considered how best to implement that decision. There was little support in the ND for another World Sectoral on this point since it could only take place next year and we considered it necessary to act sooner in the interests of the majority of members in the sector.

We therefore decided to ask the President to write to the UN expressing AIIC’s willingness to sign the Agreement, to which she agreed. We sent a letter to UN PDs to explain our decision. The President sent a letter on 2 December to Mr. Gettu which received an immediate reply from him saying he would ask his staff to act. We are awaiting their response.

This is the text of the letter sent:

Dear Mr Gettu,

Further to my letter of 26 September, to which I seem unfortunately to have received no reply, and to the exchange over several months with your predecessor, I am writing to inform you that AIIC is willing to sign the Agreement with the United Nations.

We have taken this decision since, although ratified, the unsigned Agreement is not considered to be in force by all parties in all parts of the world, and this is creating problems of compliance.

We have also established that the disputed clause which has hindered our signing, concerning long-term employment of freelance interpreters mostly applicable at the UN HQ New York, is seldom if ever used now.

We would like however to put on record the following:

The United Nations added a reservation to the Agreement after the end of negotiations and after ratification which substantially altered the above-mentioned clause; they subsequently offered to remove the reservation in exchange for our removing footnotes we had introduced. We complied.  The UN, however, simply moved its reservation from the body of the text to the Annex.  Disappointingly for AIIC, which has been negotiating with the UN for so many years, we have to note that the UN did not keep its part of the bargain.

Your service insisted that the legal base of its reservation lay in an amendment to the Staff Regulations – and referred us to the Office of Legal Affairs with whom we spoke on 28 February 2013. They promised to provide information within a week, but despite reminders to your predecessor and his own promises to provide the necessary texts, this proof has never been produced.  Since the UN is unable to quote a provision from its own regulations we must deduce that no such provision exists.

We find it extremely disquieting that a long relationship between AIIC and the UN should have been troubled in this way. Honest negotiation is a point of principle which we believe all parties should respect.

We have, however, decided to put this unhappy episode behind us and, by signing the Agreement, look to the future.

In the past Agreements have been signed here in Geneva by the President of AIIC and a delegated representative of the organizations.  We would therefore propose that we seek a mutually acceptable date to do this or would be happy to accommodate another arrangement.

Yours sincerely,

Linda Fitchett

Mid term review 

The Agreement is silent on a Mid-term Review; the Delegation will seek advice and consider the pros and cons of seeking a MTR.

Non-compliance with the Agreement aka the hardy annual

We should recognize that there have always been problems with getting organizations and far-flung regional offices to abide by the Agreement.  Nerio and Jacques have worked hard in their respective regions to get organizations and colleagues to apply the rules.  We trust that a formal signature of the Agreement will help clarify the situation.

We should not lose sight of the fact that the Agreement is operating well in most of the places where we work – it is probably fair to say that in the main it is operating to the satisfaction of colleagues.

It is also important to recognize that non-compliance is not always deliberate; some organizations welcome guidance and help from their parent organization. 

The ace up our sleeve is the reference to “mandated activities” at the beginning of the Agreement; it does not give organizations or regional offices much wiggle room.

There are borderline cases; a meeting in Africa may involve 9 participants in a small office and the Irish Embassy pays for the interpreters. Or USAid. Is it a mandated activity?

Colleagues must understand that they have a role to play in compliance; they have to tell their professional delegation or us or their AIIC representative if problems arise, and they need to provide full details. What is more, local interpreters must not cut corners or feign ignorance of the Agreement.

We are keen to open and maintain lines of communication with interpreters who work outside the headquarter cities – we want you to feel you have a stake in the Agreement and its proper implementation. Jacques suggested that a letter might be usefully sent from chief interpreters to their regional offices to remind them of the need to apply the Agreement, a good candidate would be the FAO.

Both the Canadian and French sub-sectors have requested the organization of a UN World Sectoral next year, but the ND believes we should first see whether the Agreement is signed and compliance subsequently improves.

Latin America – an illustrative tale

Nerio visited Central and Latin America earlier this year and spoke to the locals about the Agreement. He took time to explain the Agreement and the working conditions to them and they then brought their fees and manning strengths up to nearer the agreed level moving from $200-250 to $400 per day and making clear to people that working alone for four hours was not in our long-term interest. This is good for AIIC because people see the benefit of membership, it helps resolve the compliance problems.

Coordinated Organizations

Negotiations are currently underway for the next agreement with these organizations (Council of Europe, Nato, European Space Agency). The organizations wanted to reduce base pay by 10 per cent as well as reducing travel allowances and pension contributions. 

We could well face such a negotiating ploy next time around, so we need to do what we can to defend working conditions in this sector.

The Coordinated Organizations delegation raised the idea of an Inter-Sectoral meeting that would bring together all who work in the different agreement sectors.  The UN Neg Del welcomed the idea, and believed it had to be seen in conjunction with the proposal to revive the Standing Committee of the Agreement Sectors (see below).

Advisory Board

The Advisory Board is to replace the AIIC Council after the next Assembly (Addis Ababa in January 2015); in January 2014 there will be a dry run to test the new machinery and working methods and the sectors have been asked to be present.  Andrew Brookes will attend for the UN. Both at the simulation and at Council in January the situation Agreement Sectors will be discussed; this is a matter of great concern to AIIC’s governing bodies.

Standing Committee of the Agreement Sectors (SCAS)

This committee existed in the past but folded once Michèle Homsi stood down as its chairman. The UN Neg Del supports the AIIC president’s efforts to revive it because of the current economic climate and the likelihood of very difficult negotiations in all sectors next time around.

Benoît Krémer (former AIIC President) has agreed to chair the new committee.  We are supportive in principle of this body as a forum for exchange amongst the Agreement Sectors and Andrew will participate in a first meeting in January in the framework of the Council meetings..

Other business

Preferred Hotel Programme at the FAO in Rome:  on advice we had contacted the International Civil Service Commission to ask them to rule on the lawfulness of the PHP under UN Rules; they replied recently that they could not do so because AIIC was not an organization of the UN Common System.

In conclusion

Everyone thanked Isabelle for making the arrangements so well. It was agreed that it had been a very positive and useful meeting and that seeing each other was far better than communication by email. We shall meet again next year, the date will depend on what happens in the sector and on whether we need to prepare for a mid term review.

Postscript

Since the meeting the AIIC President has written to the UN signalling our willingness to sign the Agreement. We now await their response.


Recommended citation format:
United Nations Negotiating Delegation. "UN Negotiating Delegation meeting, 9 November 2013, Rome". aiic.net December 12, 2013. Accessed April 24, 2019. <http://aiic.net/p/6673>.



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Nyssa Fiona GREGORY

   

As coordinator of the UNESCO Professional Delegation and former member of the ND, I have to take serious issue with several things in this smorgasbord of a report. First, I am not at all persuaded that the, doubtless, short-lived obtuseness of the UN Secretary-General's actions vis-à-vis the UN's own Staff Unions warrant the tenuous conclusion that this dictates a precipitous signature of the Agreement in the absence of a satisfactory outcome regarding the problem of the UN's ex post facto reservation on the monthly rate. And much as I bemoan the fact that Agreement compliance beyond the HQs continues to be unsatisfactory and agree that it is has to be remedied as soon as possible, there is a fundamental issue of principle at stake here that supersedes such considerations. That principle is that, irrespective of the validity (or otherwise) of any arguments the UN may wish to adduce in support of this reservation, this new and unilaterally-imposed reservation was entered after the World Sectoral had approved a text of the Agreement that did not contain it. Moreover, this reservation had financial implications for the colleagues thereby affected. It should have been negotiated bilaterally, with some quid pro quo for those financial implications. Four members of the ND (including its coordinator) at the time this demand was raised by the UN felt that a formal letter containing the proposal had to be addressed to AIIC before it could be formally considered, let alone countenanced in the final text of the Agreement. When the proposal was actually "tabled" - and then only informally - this tabling 'quite remarkably' took place within days of the WS vote. Evidently, the definitive text of the Agreement that the President intends now to sign will be different from the text voted upon by the WS. It is this "vice de procédure" that three subsectoral meetings (in Montreal, Paris and Rome) are demanding be addressed before the Agreement can be signed. It requires the convening of a further World Sectoral to determine whether a revote is required and the conduct of such a vote should one be decided upon by that WS. Lest there be any ambiguity or confusion here regarding my own position - one held by the majority of Paris colleagues - let it be clear that I am not advocating the Agreement be rejected it (far from it), but the membership needs to take a stand advisedly on what now seems likely to a definitive text that will differ materially from the one they first approved. There are other reasons, too, why a WS now needs to be convened: first and foremost, the likelihood of a Mid-Term Review being held in the relatively near future, as formally proposed by the UN, and the consequent need for a proper ND mandate to be drafted for that review by the membership in the event that its discussions gravitate towards outright negotiation, or at least clarification, of the Agreement text - something that carries a measure of risk for AIIC, but also an opportunity for its concerns to be addressed and for a more vigorous protest to be lodged regarding the timing and nature of the UN's reservation. While the majority of the current ND may not be too enamoured of the idea of convening a WS, three regions are now demanding it - others may follow - and it simply cannot disregard the opinions of colleagues on such an issue without properly consulting them. Otherwise, what is the point of having subsectoral meetings in the first place? Coming now to the President's infelicitous letter... Aside from its other flaws, I have to highlight the fundamental error in its treatment of the reservation issue. The letter states: "We have also established that the disputed clause which has hindered our signing, concerning long-term employment of freelance interpreters mostly applicable at the UN HQ New York, is seldom if ever used now." The UN's mandarins could not have made this specious argument any better. Quite who "established" this tendentious interpretation of the situation, I am curious to know. But let there be no mistake: the only reason why this "disputed clause is seldom, if ever, used" is that the UN HQ Chief Interpreter has laudably sought to avoid placing colleagues in the invidious position of having to tackle the much lower threshold of the monthly rate by offering them separate contracts of shorter periods (up to 4 weeks, i.e. 26 days) to avoid their exceeding that 31-day threshold. Moreover, while it is true that relatively few colleagues are currently in this situation, this may be a temporary state: many more would have been affected by it if the UN had not filled a number of staff vacancies in the meantime. With a number of staff interpreters due to retire in the next few years and no guarantee that suitable candidates will be identified to replace them, the numbers of freelancers potentially placed in the 4-week versus 5-week predicament may once more rise in future years. And, these considerations aside, there remains the fundamental issue of principle: the UN manipulated the time-line on this issue in order to infiltrate its reservation into the Agreement after it had already been voted on and approved by the WS and failed formally to negotiate or even adequately discuss its contents with the Negotiating Delegation - confining its contact on the matter to a handful of desultory and informal communications with a single member of the ND primarily responsible for financial aspects (the salary rate calculations) in the Agreement. Th publication of the President's letter is , nonetheless, a very welcome display of transparency. It is now public knowledge that the UN has replied substantively to that letter, even if the contents of that letter are still unknown to the membership. I trust that the President will now act in the same vein of transparency in likewise publishing that response, or at the very least disclosing it to the Professional Delegations, so that we can deliberate advisedly upon it, both prior to the WS and, more importantly still, at it.

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Nerio GUERRERO

   

By way of clarification: The "illustrative tale" on non-compliance with the Agreement in Latin America is not entirely accurate. The case in question was a specific country in Central America, where colleagues I met during my visit in December 2012 would subsequently take the time to visit every single UN entity represented in their country. They met with officials in those bodies, discussed working conditions and left copies of the Agreement with them. The morale of the story, however, remains relevant: It is up to us to ensure the Agreement is enforced and to resist and report every attempt at deviating from it.

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