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VOICE OF THE STAFF RETIREMENT POLICY: A DOUBLE VISION OR NO VISION AT ALL?

15 February 2004

Michael Sarsar, a longtime defender of staff causes and an elected member of the staff union, wrote the following on the retirement policy:

For some time now, there has been high-level talk about the ageing of the United Nations and the urgent need for its rejuvenation. Currently, 58% of all Secretariat staff are older than 45, and during the next five years a total of 1,490 Secretariat staff will reach the age of mandatory retirement (see A/56/512).

One might have thought that Management has been addressing this issue over the last 10 years by offering buyouts, earmarking posts for retrenchment (remember that?), and most recently, the formulation of the reform package, which envisions the elimination of permanent contracts and their replacement by "continuing contracts."

Now, lo and behold, according to OHRM Highlights No. 24, the top issue is "Mandatory Age of Separation at 62." The report states that "The GA will consider the issue of increasing the mandatory age of separation to 62 for staff who joined the Organization before 1 January 1990 at its resumed session in 2002," and goes on to say that "A report before the Assembly..., notes that... the implications of a change in the mandatory age of separation would be minimal in respect of the Organization's age profile..." One must ask, can a total of 1,490 staff who will reach the mandatory retirement age in the next five years be viewed as "minimal?" Further more, will OHRM reveal to us the symbol and the author of this report?

One must keep in mind that the extension of the mandatory age of retirement is being discussed even as the Organization continues the practice of rehiring staff year after year. Many tell me they were begged to come and I am not talking about experienced interpreters/translators/editors, where there is a chronic shortage. It is puzzling -- how do you reconcile depriving staff of permanent contracts on the one hand while extending the contracts of those who are ready to leave and bringing back those who have already left on the other?

Each new USG for the Department of Administration and Management likes to leave a lasting impression/legacy for change. While there is nothing wrong in adapting to the so-called changing world, in the face of which we have often been pioneers, I question the pace, upheaval and impact that leaves on the staff morale. As a case in point, let us recall the Thornburgh era. At the Department of General Assembly Affairs and Conference Services (DGAACS) [at the time Department of Conference Services (DCS)], in one small unit (Records), of three staff members, all doing exactly the same work, sitting next to each other -- one belonged to DPI, another to DCS and a third to the then Department of OGS. The same held true at the Presentation Unit in the DC1 building. Some divisions changed focus and title monthly. Since that time, staff have been living in an atmosphere of uncertainty, bewilderment and fear -- especially now when so many staff who have been on board for over 10 years feel so insecure and are still hired on short or fixed-term contracts. Show me another civil service that subjects its staff to such treatment?

The Organization finds itself in confusion -- losing new, potentially innovative staff, owing to its hide-bound rules and regulations, its entrenched and old-fashioned bureaucracy and, frankly, its low pay scales, while claiming, at the same time, that it needs new blood. While it is clear that the retirement of experienced staff is a loss to the Organization in terms of its institutional memory -- I know of many staff members who were institutions in their own right, who left and took the experience with them -- it is vital that the Organization look to the future with a clearer view. There are and there have been high-level policy-makers charting the course of the Organization. Experts call that a "vision." But when we do not see clearly where we are heading -- will it lead to the rejuvenation or the geriatrification of the Organization -- we seem to suffer from double-vision.