Protests loom as cash-strapped UN agency cuts back on salaries

Protests loom as cash-strapped UN agency cuts back on salaries
UNRWA was established to provide assistance and protection to around six million Palestinian refugees. (File: Reuters)
Short Url
Updated 03 January 2021

Protests loom as cash-strapped UN agency cuts back on salaries

Protests loom as cash-strapped UN agency cuts back on salaries
  • Body needs $40m to pay staff and provide basic services

GAZA CITY: Workers have threatened to protest a decision by a cash-strapped UN agency to cut back on wages.

A spokeswoman for the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) Tamara Al-Rifai said that about 80 percent of employees’ salaries were available for December. UNRWA would pay last month’s salaries in the middle of this week but, she added, “the full amount was not available.”

Unions representing the agency’s workers have refused to cover part of the salaries owed and threatened to protest the step. The agency delayed paying the November salaries of 28,000 employees by about 10 days.

Deputy head of the Arab Staff Union in UNRWA in Gaza, Abdul Aziz Abu Sweireh, said: “We refused to split the salary, because it is a right, so that it does not turn into a permanent policy that affects our rights.”

UNRWA announced in mid-November that it needed $40 million to pay its employees and provide direct basic services, especially in Syria and the Gaza Strip.

It provides assistance to Palestinian refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, and its services include education, health care, relief and social services, infrastructure, camp improvement, protection and microfinance.

Abu Sweireh said that UNRWA Commissioner-General Philip Lazzarini sent a message to staff last Thursday. It said: “The intensive efforts made over the past two days have resulted in our donors agreeing, exceptionally, to employ funds that were earmarked for purposes outside the program budget to enable UNRWA to pay salaries for the month of December, with the requirement that the amount be paid with the first payments that reach the agency at the beginning of 2021.”

Lazarini said in his letter that the measure was a “temporary solution to the financial crisis” and stressed that it would emerge again at the beginning of the new year if UNRWA did not receive sufficient financial resources.

Abu Sweireh told Arab News that the director of UNRWA operations in Gaza told them that the salary crisis would continue for two or three months until the international conference called by the UN agency was held, which is expected in April.

He believed the crisis was political not financial, and that there were countries that were working to “liquidate” UNRWA.

“We are very concerned about the recurrence of these crises over the past two years, and we do not feel job security, in addition to the danger threatening the lives of millions who are associated with financial and relief assistance from UNRWA.”

UNRWA was established as a UN agency by a General Assembly resolution in 1949. It is mandated to provide assistance and protection to around six million Palestinian refugees.

It launched an appeal in November for immediate support to enable it to “bridge the current deficit gap” and work on a longer plan covering the next two years based on multi-year funding instead of annual funding.

It said that the budget for its services in 2021 was similar to the budget of last year - $1.4 billion - but there had been great difficulty in mobilizing the financial resources for it, leading to a “dangerous financial situation.”

The coronavirus outbreak piled more pressure on UNRWA, but its financial problems were already exacerbated by the decision of US President Donald Trump in 2018 to stop an estimated $365 million of support to the agency.

Abu Sweireh expected that the UNRWA would make new “austerities” during the new year in various programs across its five areas of operations, especially in the employment and vacancy program and the relief aid program.

He said that the UNRWA salary announcement did not completely end the crisis and he expected there to be further conflicts and challenges in the coming period.

A member of the Joint Committee for Refugees, Ahmed Al-Mudallal, told Arab News that UNRWA’s procedures suggested that the conspiracy against the refugee issue had intensified its episodes of financial crisis, especially during Trump's last moments at the White House as he was “trying hard with his administration to save the deal of the century,” a reference to the outgoing president's Middle East peace plan that was launched last January.

The UN General Assembly has granted UNRWA a mandate to work that extends until March 2023 despite the pressure facing it.