Photo : © WHIB / P.Virot
Given its obvious attractions, who wants to work at UN-ESCAP?
Mobility issue looms large for sister duty station in Asia.
The city is bursting with activity of all sorts. Its commercial streets downtown pulse like a mini-Tokyo. The country is a prosperous, rising democracy. Gleaming towers rise to the sky on every side. Yes, it’s hard not to be positive about Bangkok and Thailand. And yet, who wants to work there?
The question might seem silly regarding a big institution like UN-ESCAP (Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific), boasting pleasant work conditions in a booming capital of the New Asia, full of life and energy. But it is a question that is asked here these days, even as Asia becomes a world growth pole and staff mobility is encouraged for (but certainly not forced on) UN employees. Everyone knows the pattern: once UN staff members get a mortgage in New Jersey or their kids enter a good school in Switzerland, they are stuck in the mud, and visibly less mobile. This immobility affects career movement “downstream” at the regional commissions. A brief UN Special survey of staff and administrators in Bangkok found an undercurrent of dissatisfaction, and a somewhat defensive approach to praising their city and workplace.
On a sunny day in February we met with Geetha Karandawala, secretary of the Commission, at the outdoor café among the triangle of ESCAP secretariat buildings. She highlights the next ESCAP session (19-25 May) as “the place where everyone comes together” in Asia.
Karandawala has worked in Bangkok for 11 years: “It is a very good duty station. I have enjoyed every day here”. As a city Bangkok offers “all the comforts”, while Thailand is “very accommodating as a society. It is in a central part of the world, with access to lots of places; it has been all very much worthwhile”. She lives in Sukhovit, a downtown area on the SkyTrain line, “very close to everything: spas, laundry, gym, restaurants, on a quiet street with hotels nearby”. As for Bangkok’s notorious traffic, she is philosophical: “If you understand the traffic, it really does not bother you... but also, at a P pay scale, you can afford a driver”.
Another senior official gives a similarly upbeat assessment, while regretting how little these plusses are appreciated elsewhere: “Every time I go to Geneva, I see the same faces,” says Sachiko Yamamoto, an ILO Assistant Director-General and regional director for Asia and the Pacific. “People don’t move around too much”.
Bangkok : pas une destination pour les Genevois ?
La ville est en pleine effervescence. Elle
vibre comme un mini-Tokyo. Le pays se
positionne comme un leader à revenu intermédiaire.
Il est difficile de ne pas être positif
sur Bangkok et la Thaïlande. Et pourtant,
qui veut aller y travailler ?
La question peut sembler absurde s’agissant d’une grande institution comme la CESAP (Commission économique et sociale pour l’Asie et le Pacifique), offrant des conditions de travail agréables dans une ville asiatique en plein essor, pleine de vie, au coeur de la région qui connaît la plus forte croissance au monde.
Mais la question se pose actuellement, au
moment où l’Asie devient un pôle de croissance
mondiale et alors que la mobilité du
personnel de l’ONU est encouragée (sans
Un bref sondage auprès du personnel et des administrateurs de l’ONU à Bangkok laisse paraître un fond de mécontentement et une approche un peu sur la défensive pour faire l’éloge de leur ville et de leur lieu de travail.
« Les mêmes têtes »
« Chaque fois que je vais à Genève, je vois les mêmes têtes », déclare un haut fonctionnaire, Sachiko Yamamoto, Sous-Directeur général du BIT et Directeur régional pour l’Asie et le Pacifique. « Les gens ne bougent pas beaucoup. J’ai vécu à Genève à trois reprises. Mais quand j’y retourne, je vois toujours les mêmes têtes ! dit-elle. Les gens ne sont donc pas mobiles ? Nous avons un problème avec les gens qui ne quittent pas Genève. »
Bangkok « est en train de devenir une plaque tournante, et la Thaïlande est un pays à revenu intermédiaire, avec un faible niveau de pauvreté. Là où il y a des pauvres, c’est souvent politiquement instable. C’est là qu’il y a de l’action et une occasion à ne pas manquer, conclut-elle. Le travail à Bangkok est des plus utiles : c’est là que l’ONU est dans l’action ».
“I have lived in Geneva three times. But when I go back there, I always see the same people. Are people there just not so mobile? We have a problem with people not moving from Geneva”.
Bangkok “is becoming a hub, and Thailand is a middle-income country. This is an opportunity not to miss”, she concludes. Working in Bangkok is “very valuable: this is where the UN is in action”.
Geetha Karandawala, Secretary of the Commission
The reluctance to work in Asia came across in several contexts: staff wanting to try their hand at other duty stations, and administrators trying to recruit elsewhere, but finding resistance. “There are several misconceptions about [Bangkok],” says Marinus Sikkel, the amiable chief of staff to the executive secretary of ESCAP. He outlines concerns related to standards of living and pay at the duty station, quality of services and education, and to possibilities for promotion and of, uh, mobility.
Mr. Marinus Sikkel, Chief of Staff to the Executive Secretary of ESCAP
A one-time senior civil servant in the Netherlands, Sikkel takes to heart his injunction. He has bought a house and garden in Bangkok, and plans to settle there after retirement. He notes that Professional staff can easily find housing here, tropical climate included, for the equivalent of 1,000 Swiss francs a month. Schools for expatriates are abundant and of good quality, and the cost of living makes accumulating savings much easier than in Europe. Household help is affordable and abundant, practically obligatory.
“The key issue is not getting enough good candidates; we have plenty of them. The problem for our staff is moving from New York or Geneva. While these moves do occasionally happen, I have noticed, also through my involvement in the VINE [mobility initiative], a reluctance of colleagues in NY and Geneva to move to a duty station like Bangkok. But if nobody wants to move out from these apparently desirable duty stations, it is difficult for others to move in. I hope that [we can] take away some of the hesitations to move to Bangkok.”
At ESCAP, there are 480 established regular budget posts, says Kris Tengratip of the staff union. Two thirds of staff are General Service, mostly Thai nationals, although “not necessarily” (some come from the Philippines or South Korea). Human Resources chief James Bradley says ESCAP staff total 585, with about 520 assigned to Bangkok.
The mandates and duties at ESCAP, while not generally global, cover an enormous region. Programme areas often stretch from northern Japan and Siberia to the borders of Turkey and the Mediterranean, engulfing much of Central Asia. The ESCAP compound welcomes representative offices for some UN bodies (ILO), while other agencies are housed in Thai national ministries (WHO at Health, ITU at Communications) or have their own buildings (UNESCO, UNICEF) scattered around Bangkok.
The working milieu at UN-ESCAP headquarters, enclosed among white towers, is a physical delight; the sky lights a tropical inner court, ringed by three towers. Staff lounge about the appropriately named Lounge, under the high canopy, with abundant light and foliage. UN-ESCAP is situated at a bustling roundabout in west-central Bangkok, near the Government district. There are frequent demonstrations at the intersection. Traffic, already slow, grinds to even more of a standstill. Walking is often faster, or the hazardous motorcycle taxis, on which you sit on the back for a dizzying ride between and around stalled traffic.
The UN building is not a first-tier Bangkok tourist destination or local landmark; city maps more often highlight the Thai boxing arena down the street. But although it may lack a high profile, it remains a major hub for UN activities worldwide.
Tengratip, long-time chairman of the ESCAP staff council, agrees that the mobility issue is front and centre in staff politics. However, he places mobility behind job security as the No. 1 staff issue at UN Bangkok. Elected to a 2-year term through August 2012, he supports voluntary mobility as set out in a policy introduced 2 years ago. Mobility cannot be an obligation: that would be “too complicated” in the UN system, he says.
The Bangkok staff position at SMCC (Staff- Management Consultative Committee) is that we “need voluntary mobility: many staff want to be mobile, but cannot be”. Spouse employment remains an issue, one to be addressed at the General Assembly’s sixtyseventh session, he hopes.
An SMCC working group on mobility policy has been established. “We all have the same language on mobility: we all want it”, says Tengratip. But how to make it work? One idea he supports: make staff members’ mobility a much bigger factor in their career evaluation.
How do you change the appeal of a UN duty station? The answer to that question may come spontaneously, if the rise of Bangkok as a Singapore-like techno-city steadily changes its profile. But the answer may also be immune to any solution proposed by the UN administration. Cultural factors weigh heavily on people’s choice of where to live and settle for long periods. Despite the UN’s frequent recourse to “action plans” as the solution to every problem, individual and cultural feelings are often hard to figure.
Bangkok is calling, and it is up to UN staff to answer.