Last month, a report from a management task force on the future of work at the UN caused considerable consternation among staff with a proposal for new, agile staff contracts. We asked two of those responsible for the report for their views on the future of work both inside and outside the UN, taking into account the consequences of the pandemic.
Guy Ryder, Director-General of the International Labour Organization
You lead an organization that is custodian of numerous international labour conventions around how we work. Do you think Covid will have a lasting impact on the world of work and how?
We estimate that the equivalent of 332 million full-time jobs were lost in the first three quarters of 2020. And when government support packages wind down – where these have been possible – this figure is very likely to rise.
The damage caused has been particularly severe on those who were already vulnerable. Women have received a double blow, being more likely to lose all or part of their paid employment and to take on extra unpaid care work. Perhaps the worst off are the two billion in the informal economy. The pandemic has highlighted the inadequacy of social protection coverage with the vast majority of the world’s population living without adequate or even basic social protection. It has also precipitated a shift to remote working, teleworking, welcomed by some but also prompting among some, fears of the growth of new ways of working without proper protection and indeed, fears about the loss of the basic social function of work.
We are only as strong and secure as the weakest among us. The ILO Centenary Declaration for the Future of Work provides an invaluable roadmap for building forward better.
The ILO’s Global Commission on the Future of Work called for stronger social protection for today’s workers. Yet a report by an CEB task force (Chief Executives Board for Coordination) on the future of work, of which the ILO is vice-chair, proposed a new agile contract for the UN system that would provide no possibility of renewal and would deny access to the UN pension scheme. In retrospect do you think the CEB task force report went too far?
The HLCM (High-Level Committee on Management) report is an interim report of a taskforce and lists a large number of considerations that could be taken into account in developing possible new contract modalities. None of these has been endorsed. Indeed, the decision from the HLCM was to continue social dialogue with the staff federations on the full range of considerations. The report identifies the need for transparency and predictability around contract duration, but certainly does not suggest no possibility of renewal of contracts. It also specifically states that any proposals would need to ensure appropriate cover for social protection.
From the ILO’s perspective, the work of the taskforce is to ensure we have a UN workforce that is equipped to meet the challenges and uncertainty of the future, that is employed on decent and transparent conditions which take the needs and aspirations of staff into account.
The ILO is strongly committed to the UN Common System and the integral role of the ICSC in it, and we do engage with it at many levels.
Under your leadership, the ILO has engaged strongly with the ICSC (International Civil Service Commission) at many levels. Has it been useful, and do you see ways in which the ICSC could be improved?
The ILO is strongly committed to the UN Common System and the integral role of the ICSC in it, and we do engage with it at many levels, including and, importantly, through ILO expert labour statisticians.
The ILO promoted the establishment of a high-level tripartite forum, involving the ICSC Chair and commissioners, HLCM and staff federation representatives, to improve communications between the three groups and to work on a number of issues identified for joint work. This group was making solid progress but has been interrupted by the pandemic.
All three parties recognise the need to review the working methods of the ICSC to ensure we have a credible and transparent approach to setting terms and conditions of employment; whose work is based on expert and reliable data; and which actively engages with the representatives of management and staff and takes into account their views.
Catherine Pollard, Under Secretary-General for Management Strategy and Policy Compliance
You are responsible for administrative policy and direction at the UN. Do you think Covid will have a lasting impact on the UN workplace?
Absolutely. The COVID-19 epidemic required UN staff to quickly adapt to working remotely, and it was the first time that so many staff throughout the Organization worked remotely for such an extended period.
Lessons learned from this period, particularly in the area of flexible working arrangements, and more importantly in innovation, will certainly be carried forward. The pandemic has forced us to look at our work from a new perspective and try new things. I am inspired by the creativity and enthusiasm of our staff.
The ILO’s Global Commission on the Future of Work called for stronger social protection for today’s workers. Yet a report by a CEB task force, also called the Future of the UN system Workforce of which you were effectively chair, and with the ILO as vice-chair, proposed a new agile contract for the UN system that would provide no possibility of renewal and would deny access to the UN pension scheme. This raised a lot of concern among staff. In retrospect do you think the CEB task force report went too far?
I would like to clear up certain misunderstandings regarding discussions about a new contractual modality. There was never any concept of having an “uberization” of our workforce. I feel there are misconceptions about the goal of the Task Force and invite all staff to read the report for themselves. The future generation of the workforce does not necessarily hold the same priorities as many of our current staff. We need options and flexibility to remain an attractive employer. Any future model would not impact any contractual arrangements of currently serving staff. It is clear that the social protections of staff will be an important aspect of any new contractual modality.
I do not feel the Task Force went too far in looking into this critical issue. Clearly, any proposal in this area will need to move forward in consultation with staff and other key stakeholders like the UNJSPF (United Nations Joint Staff Pension Fund) and the ICSC.
A new contractual modality is only one of the topics under consideration. Many other recommendations that would greatly benefit current and future staff are also being put forward. For example, the use of remote and flexible working arrangements; enhanced social and family care policies; promoting work-life balance; and implementing technological tools to better support our work.
I strongly believe the UN remains the lead organization for the resolution of many of the problems that have arisen from the pandemic.
Do you think member states’ expectations of UN staff will have changed as a result of the pandemic?
The world economy has particularly suffered and our Member States will have to implement measures within their own countries to recover. Member States will expect us to continue to deliver on our mandates, do more with less and find innovative solutions.
That being said, I strongly believe the UN remains the lead organization for the resolution of many of the problems that have arisen from the pandemic and that our role as a global forum for multilateral discussions and negotiations will be extremely critical to global recovery.
The UN will remain a strong stakeholder to Member States as the world tries to move forward in all areas of economic and social development, especially in those areas directly impacted by COVID-19.