Don’t forget the consultants
© Ilyass SEDDOUG on Unsplash
Posted on 4 Jun 2020
Categories: Inside view
Study for a British university degree in Geneva

Consultants are the forgotten workforce at the UN, even if they sometimes or often sit side by side with colleagues. With precarious contracts, low wages and a status that keeps them half in and half out of the UN system, it’s time to shed a light on the way the UN treats so many of its workers.

Two consultants have accepted to share their thoughts with UN Today on condition of us not revealing their names. 

The first is a testimony in which a consultant tells of the challenges she faces, not only in normal times, but with the additional complication of the COVID-19 crisis.

The second is a letter from a consultant to the Cantonal ombudsman highlighting their situation. Consultants are subject to tax and social security payments. But as soon as their contract ends, they must leave the country, reaping little from the payments they have made. And while they are subject to the obligations of someone working in the Swiss private sector, they receive none of the benefits. The letter makes clear suggestions on how to prevent consultants falling through Switzerland’s administrative cracks. The ombudsman replied that there were a number of important issues to examine.

We want to continue covering the plight of the UN’s forgotten and vulnerable workforce in the hope of bringing about some change because that change won’t happen by itself. The interns have shown how organizing can make a difference.

Please get in touch if you would like to share your thoughts or testimonials. Don’t be silent.

Being a consultant for the UN

As a consultant working for the UN since late 2018, I came into the organization in between all the chaos about payment of taxes and other dues. 

UN Photo-Pontus Wallsten

Being a consultant for the UN has been an adventure more than anything else, the experiences, the travel, the uncertainties, the quarterly bills from OCAS and the tax offices all have become a routine part of my existence in Geneva. Then came the global pandemic that is now known as COVID‑19.

This brought with it more uncertainties even for the highest-ranking officer in the building and obviously to us consultants too. Although I have been one of the lucky few to have continuous contracts for 6 month periods each, I unfortunately cannot say this for the most of us. And as project funds dwindle due to the current situation, we move into more and more difficult times. Irrespective of this, the effort that the organization has taken cannot be ignored. The two-year limit of undertaking consultancy work has been extended for this period and this softens the fall for many. And the continuous support of our supervisors and team leads makes sure we are very well part of our teams. As many sectors across the world face a lag,

I am more than happy to say that our work has been increasing and has been more challenging than ever in the field of International Trade. Countries are seeking more and more support to ensure that their policies, infrastructure and institutions are in place to face this challenge successfully. As the world fights this battle, all we consultants can hope for is our next contract and exciting work.

Photo by Fred Kearney on Unsplash

Appeal to Cantonal Ombudsman on tax and social contribution obligation of UN consultants

I am an international consultant working at the International Trade Centre in Geneva. For a long time, I have thought about the tax and social contribution obligations of United Nations consultants.

During the time I have worked as a UN consultant, I have fully complied with these instructions. However, I want to point out some inconsistencies in the regulation for your consideration:

“We are treated as working for the private sector but are barred from entering the Swiss labour market.”

1. UN consultants are treated on one hand as non-staff employees: we are not granted similar privileges as UN employees (no immunity rights, no tax and AVS exemption, no Swiss insurance exemption). Indeed, we are treated in the same manner as anyone working independently or working for the private sector in Switzerland. However, as CDL holders, we are barred from entering the Swiss labor market and from applying for permanent residence and/or citizenship.

2. When it comes to paying taxes and social contribution (AVS), UN consultants are paying even more than people working in the private sector. Since the UN is not responsible for paying half of the AVS amount, consultants will have to pay 100% by themselves. That a large share of consultants’ income goes to AVS contribution is one thing, but what is even worse is that we do not know how we will receive benefits from our tax and AVS contribution.

“We pay 100% AVS… but cannot receive unemployment allowance”

3. When his or her contract ends, a UN consultant will have maximum 2 months (grace period) before having to leave Geneva and Switzerland. This fact makes it impossible for a consultant to claim any benefits in reality. According to UN rules, no person can work as a consultant for more than 24 months in a period of 36 months. So if a consultant cannot be recruited as a UN employee after these 2 years, it is almost certain that he or she will become unemployed because the CDL does not allow him or her to enter Swiss labor market. However, since he or she will have to leave Switzerland within 2 months, he or she will not have sufficient time to declare unemployment in hope of receiving any unemployment allowance. “CDL holders are not allowed to apply for citizenship. This is unfair”

4. Basically no matter how long they stay in Switzerland, CDL holders are generally not allowed to apply for Swiss citizenship. This is absolutely unfair for consultants who work in Switzerland for several years, paying taxes and AVS. Those years should not be disregarded only because they hold CDLs type “H”.

5. The above points lead me to the conclusion that the Mission and the Canton of Geneva have only thought of the obligations of UN consultants to pay taxes and AVS, but have not taken into account the benefits we should receive as tax payers and AVS contributors.

“After taxes and AVS I receive US$ 220 per working day”

I tend to agree with the status of UN consultants as non-staff employees; therefore, we should pay taxes for our earnings. However, the UN has not raised its payment scale for many years. I receive now US$ 320 per working day, which is because I have had accumulated many years of experience. After subtracting taxes and AVS, which makes a total of about 30 %, I actually receive about US$ 220 per working day (no insurance, no paid leave, no other benefits are offered by the UN). Taking this into account, I sincerely ask the Canton of Geneva to consider some types of tax reduction, if not exemption, for UN consultants.

Regarding UN consultants who later choose to reside for long or permanently in Switzerland, we should be treated as, for instance, permit “B” holders. For the same reason, the duration that consultants work for the UN (and pay taxes and AVS), should be taken into account when they wish to apply for work permits and/or residency after terminating their contracts with the UN.

“The UN has never cared about the welfare of their consultants.”

I understand that the UN should be the party who is most responsible for all these problems. They are circumventing Swiss laws: UN consultants like us are indeed working like other staff members (we go to work every day, based at the office from 9 am to 6 pm) but we are not treated as employees. The UN deliberately classifies us as consultants (who should be home-based and paid in line with outputs) so that it will not have to cover anything for us: no insurance, no pension plan, no paid leave, etc. But the UN has never cared about the welfare of their consultants.

Faithfully yours.

“We want to continue covering the plight of the UN’s forgotten and vulnerable workforce in the hope of bringing about some change because that change won’t happen by itself.”

* Ian Richards is an Economist at UNCTAD and a UNOG staff representative.