Parents working as UN consultants left in the lurch
Parental leave policies for UN staff have much room for improvement — and the UN’s “forgotten workforce” receives even less support
1 Jun 2022

1 June marks the Global Day of Parents. On this occasion, we have dedicated the fourth episode of our Parents’ Voices series to the situation of non-staff categories at the UN. Often called the UN’s “forgotten workforce,” consultants and individual contractors receive shorter contracts, lower wages, and fewer benefits compared with their UN staff colleagues, despite working the same hours on similar tasks. This unfortunately also applies to parenting.

Anonymous, father of one, former consultant, now staff

“My child was born while I was working as a UN consultant. You wouldn’t have known I had a newborn baby at home, that’s the amount of work that was coming through.”

At the time his child was born in the mid-2010s, the former consultant was working at a UN field office on a series of two- or three-month contracts. There was a mandatory two-month contract break per 12-month period.

“According to the policy, I should not have been working during contract break; I should not have had access to my emails,” he said. “And yet, I was expected to keep working through the breaks, doing 12 months of work for 10 months of consultant-level pay.”

His child was due to be born just before one of these contract breaks. “Prior to the birth, there was a discussion with my boss. I was told: ‘It’d be great for you to be able to take some paternity leave, take some time off to be with your family.’ But there wasn’t anything actually definitive, nothing in writing.” As a consultant, this “paternity leave” wouldn’t be paid. It would just be, in theory, the two months of unpaid annual leave he was already entitled to.

“When my baby was born, my wife had to be in hospital for a couple of weeks, and I was staying there with her. Everyone in the office knew about the birth, of course. I had shared with them, you know, the usual baby info and photos. And then, literally the next day, I’m sitting in the hospital room fielding ‘urgent’ phone calls from my boss for stuff that has to be, apparently, done immediately, and responding to emails and writing up documents. There was absolutely no space given.”

“It was lights out at 9 p.m. in the hospital, but I’d be turning on the light and working, tapping away at my laptop. The nurse, doing the rounds, opened the door and bit into me, saying, ‘Your wife needs to sleep.’ So I spent the next week and a half, every time the nurse came, turning the light off and feeling like a naughty kid.”

In the end, although he was allowed to work from home, the former consultant said he received “zero” time off following the birth of his child. “There were just no boundaries.”

In 2014, an internal report by the UN’s Joint Inspection Unit found that around 45% of the total workforce in UN organizations is working under non-staff contracts. Those living in expensive cities, such as Geneva, face serious financial difficulties, not to mention the cost of childcare.

How many have been forced to take unpaid parental leave? Or, like the former consultant interviewed here, how many have felt pressured to work through the leave they are entitled to take, whether it is paid or not?

The way forward: Working from home, fairer treatment for consultants, equal support for all parents

The former consultant suggested three ways the situation for UN employees with young children could be improved.

The first is working from home, which he called the “one saving grace” of his experience working for a UN organization as a new parent. “I knew that if I needed to be at home with my kid or go to the doctor, I could work from home.” As the COVID pandemic eases and some UN organizations are pushing for workers to come back to the office either part- or full-time, keeping the option open for new parents to work from home is essential.

Secondly, there needs to be better treatment of consultants, who are doing the same work as UN staff and yet receive none of the benefits, including paid parental leave. “The contract uncertainty adds stress on how you can provide for your family,” he said, “especially in single-income households.”

And third, as previous editions of Parents’ Voices have highlighted, there should be better support for non-birthing or non-biological parents, because they are still part of the family unit raising a child.

“At the UN, we are meant to be working to support people, yet we treat a portion of our employees differently,” he said. “We need to live the values that we’re espousing. We’re going out and talking about equality and equity across genders and across sexual orientations. But then, in our offices, we’re being made to live the same gender-enforcing roles.”

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* "U.N. Parents: Equal Rights Equal Roles” is an informal group of staff and non-staff across duty stations, intending to suggest reforms to the UN parental leave policy and advocate for more child-centered family policies across the UN system.
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