Staff at WHO HQ stop work in protest at conditions

BMJ 2005; 331 doi: (Published 08 December 2005) Cite this as: BMJ 2005;331:1360
  1. Paul Ress
  1. Geneva

    Between 400 and 700 staff members at the World Health Organization stopped work for an hour last week, in what the protestors saw as a demonstration about conditions, and in what the director general of the body, Dr Lee Jong-wook, called a “strike.”

    Dr Lee said it was “unprecedented in the history of WHO,” and he threatened strikers with loss of pay and “other disciplinary measures which could involve dismissal from WHO.”

    He also warned the strikers they could be replaced by transferring staff from WHO's regional offices and reminded them that “the staff association is not a union.”

    The tough tone of Dr Lee's memo to his Geneva headquarters staff of 2400 appears to have prevented some employees from walking off the job, while angering others.

    The number who stopped work was estimated at between 600 and 700 people by the staff committee's organisers of the stoppage, while a spokesperson for WHO first estimated the number at “only 280” and then increased the figure to 400.

    The stoppage appears to have been prompted by several grievances. Between 10% and 15% of WHO employees face losing their jobs. Staff say that the management is carrying out a reorganisation, in what is called a Strategic Direction and Competency Review, without any consultation with the staff. Efforts by the staff committee to meet Dr Lee to talk things over have allegedly been rebuffed. Committee members were referred to his three top advisers.

    Moreover, anyone who has had four consecutive 11 month contracts, an arrangement that is common in WHO, will either have to have found a regular fixed term status or lose his or her job by July 2006. This was known as the “four years and out” policy and staff say it has created a great deal of insecurity and anxiety.

    The two sides met early this week to negotiate.

    A spokewoman for WHO explained the organisation's proposed changes. “The purpose of putting a four year limit on 11 month contracts at WHO was to do away with the excessive number of such contacts.

    “The four years gave management time to look at the posts involved in 11 month contracts and to decide whether they were useful or should be abolished. In other words, our aim was to regularise the system. We are discussing this right now with the staff committee.”

    She said that Dr Lee's letter was justified because he felt that strike action was “disproportionate to the few remaining disagreements between management and staff.”

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