The British Embassy's fight with a labor union has escalated again, this time in the form of a 25-page complaint that the union filed with the International Labor Organization concerning workplace practices at British diplomatic offices in this country. An embassy representative said Tuesday that officials there were "disappointed," but would respond to the complaint's claims.
"We are signatories to ILO conventions, and we don't think we have done anything in contravention of the agreements," said Peter Hayes, head of administration at the embassy on Massachusetts Avenue. "We will answer the complaint point by point. This is not the proper way to address the problem, and we would have preferred to have face-to-face discussions."
The International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers faxed a copy of its complaint to the British Embassy on the afternoon of June 24, a Friday, and made it public the following Monday morning, giving the British government scant time to study and respond to the document, Hayes said yesterday.
The dispute arose over changes in salaries and health, pension and maternity benefits affecting about 630 employees at the embassy. The embassy said "good progress" had been made in discussions with the union before the talks broke off a month ago.
"They want to have a cocktail party, but we want an actual contract," countered Jamie Horwitz, a spokesman for the union. "The complaint we filed will spell out how it has not worked," he added, referring to the embassy's approach to the talks.
Hayes said that the embassy agreed that the union could come onto the premises and hold meetings and membership drives, but that it stopped short of granting the union exclusivity. "There would be no exclusive collective or one-closed-shop bargaining, we told them," Hayes said. "They could have membership drives on site, but we did not agree to automatically deduct membership dues from all our staff, even those who did not wish to be members."
"This is the British government they are dealing with, not some dastardly organization," he added.
Sixty percent of the locally engaged employees have signed union authorization cards and started paying dues to the federation.
Vision for Helping Refugees
Antonio Guterres, who served as Portugal's prime minister from 1996 to 2002, became the 10th U.N. high commissioner for refugees on June 15. One of his first orders of business was to come to Washington last week to lobby the U.S. government to support his five-year vision for leading the agency, which cares for 17 million refugees in 115 countries.
"I do not come with a rainbow of initiatives, but I see my mission as making sure everything that was planned for is implemented," he said in an interview Friday. Help should be granted "not only as part of a humanitarian perspective of assistance but based on the principle that people should have their rights."
He added: "It is not a charity approach but a rights-driven approach. We don't only grant refugees help but consider what can be done for resettlement."
"For us, it is essential to preserve the independence of the humanitarian space," he continued, suggesting that his agency must not be exploited as an instrument of the military strategies of opposing parties during wars and other conflicts.
Before catching a plane back to Geneva, where his agency is based, Guterres outlined how he often worked on international humanitarian issues in his 20 years of public service with the Portuguese government. He led efforts to end atrocities in East Timor, a former Portuguese colony; in 1991, he founded the Portuguese Refugee Council.
In the early 1980s, he was chairman of the committee on demography, migration and refugees in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, a group based in Strasbourg, France, that has 46 member countries.
He has also been active in the Socialist International, which links nearly 160 social democratic and labor parties around the world. He was vice president of the group from 1992 to 1999 and then president until he began his new job last month.
Guterres said the network of contacts he developed over the years could be a big help in his efforts for refugees. "This is the moment in my life to do it. I saw an opportunity and I became a candidate," he said of his bid to run the U.N. agency, which has a budget of more than $1 billion this year and employs 6,000 people worldwide.