Fri, Dec 07, 2012 - Page 9 News List

Amnesty International staff battle management

The renowned human rights group wants to move 500 jobs to hotspots abroad, but many employees feel the very future of the organization is in doubt

By Alexandra Topping  /  The Guardian, LONDON

Illustration: Mountain People

The church hall in central London was standing room only, the atmosphere charged. In a room draped in banners carrying the slogan “Workers’ Rights are Human Rights,” a trade union representative summed up the mood: “We are here and we are pissed off.” These were not the disgruntled workers of a large corporation, but the staff of Amnesty Internationa, their anger not focused on human rights abuses, but on their own management.

The battle between Amnesty’s staff and management has intensified in recent months following proposals to restructure the organization. Strikes have been held at both the UK branch and the international secretariat headquarters in London, and picket lines have formed in solidarity outside Amnesty offices around the world. Staff have given management a vote of no confidence and — in response to more than 100 members expressing concern about changes taking place in the organization — an extraordinary general meeting has been called for next month.

The core of the dispute lies in the decision, led by Amnesty secretary-general Salil Shetty to take the organization “closer to the ground,” opening 10 new regional hubs in hotspots where human rights violations occur. Some of Amnesty’s 500 staff in London will be moved abroad, and those affected argue that the shift is under-planned, ill-judged and risks muddying the purpose of the organization. For them this is not an industrial dispute over job cuts, but a battle for the organization’s soul.

According to Thomas Schultz-Jagow, Amnesty’s senior director of campaigns and communications, the organization has no choice but to adapt to a changing world.

“It is anachronistic to have an organization with more than 500 people in London when we need to be where these abuses are happening, we need to be where the action is,” he said. “If we do nothing, we will lose influence and become out of touch with those places where human rights violations are happening.”

The majority of workers the Guardian spoke to agreed, in principle, with the proposal. So how have relations become so bitter?

Schultz-Jagow said that although the proposals had been on the table for two years, only now were cuts to staffing being implemented and he suggested that Unite, the workers’ union, was stalling the process.

“The role of Unite is to keep as many jobs in London as possible, and our job is to deliver a global strategy,” he said. “We have huge sympathy for the people who are impacted but we also have a responsibility to take this forward.”

The complaints at Amnesty’s two offices in London vary. Workers in the UK section fear the security risks in opening new offices in often dangerous places have not been properly assessed, that human rights work and impartiality could be put at risk and that Amnesty UK could, in the words of one worker, be turned into a “cash cow” rather than a campaigning hub. In the UK section, 23 posts will be made redundant, reducing the total from 171 to 148; the number set to go in the international secretariat has yet to be established.

Workers are incensed that redundancy terms have been torn up before cuts are made, with three weeks’ payments given for every year of service rather than four. By contrast, Shetty’s predecessor, Irene Khan, received £530,000 (US$852,600) — four times her annual salary — on leaving Amnesty last year. Her deputy, Kate Gilmore, who left at the same time as Khan, was paid £320,000.

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