By Jane Doh
Describing what I do for a living has never been easy. For many years, I worked for an NGO in the field of democracy development. When people asked my parents about my job, it was practically impossible for them to explain it—and even I struggled to present it succinctly. Happily, with the end of the Clinton administration, the former Secretary of State became my NGO’s Chairperson. This meant that my parents could field any questions about my job simply by saying that I worked for Madeleine Albright. This made them happy. And until very recently they could also describe my next job pretty easily: they could just say that I worked for the United Nations.
In reality though, there is nothing simple about working for the UN. Acronyms abound. Change comes very slowly. I sometimes wonder if any other organization on earth still uses triplicate carbon paper and American Express traveller’s checks. Staffing decisions at the UN appear to be particularly complicated exercises. For starters, there are various categories of individuals employed at the UN: international hires and national hires, professional staff and administrative staff, regular staff and temporary staff.
Between “regular” staff and “temporary” staff, conditions and benefits differ considerably. The main difference is that regular staff have job security, and after 20 years a pension, although recent rule changes mean that temporary staff also get inferior health benefits, fewer vacation and sick days, and are not permitted to work for more than 364 days before taking a mandatory break. Ostensibly, these differences were instituted to encourage the organization not to hire people on a temporary basis but to try and fill openings through the more laborious recruitment system for regular personnel.
However, the recruitment for regular staff can take upwards of one year, so the elimination of temporary staff does not look to be near at hand. Moreover, the system allows regular staff to temporarily take other jobs while “holding” their original posts—which are then filled by other temporary staff. On the off chance you’re still with me, get this: it is even possible for a temporary staff member to be temporarily filling a temporary post. In fact, that is what I am doing right now.
I am currently serving as a Human Rights Officer for five weeks covering for a colleague who is on maternity leave for 16 weeks. The person who was competitively recruited for this temporary post could not arrive until next month, so I am filling in on a temporary basis for the temporary replacement.
Why am I in this particular role? Because I wanted to find a way to stay in Switzerland with my family. And while that sounds like a reasonable goal to me, achieving it has been about as complicated as, oh, democracy development.
Here’s the deal: I was “separated” from the UN at the end of last year after the expiration of my contract. Once dismissed from the UN, my ‘carte de legitimacion,’ a residency permit of sorts linked to my employment with an official international organization, essentially expired.
I understood that I was entitled to a two-month extension, a courtesy period extended by the Swiss Government to either find a new legitimizing arrangement, or to wrap up one’s affairs and leave Switzerland. I also understood that as an American, I was entitled without a visa to be a tourist within the Schengen Area, of which Switzerland is a member, for up to 90 days. So at first I didn’t panic—I felt I had a good five months of running room to be re-hired and continue on my merry, albeit bureaucratic way. Another source of confidence that I would not be unceremoniously deported was the fact that my German partner and our two young children live legally in Switzerland. Since international human rights law recognizes the rights of the child to be united with his/her caregiver, I initially felt fairly secure that I would not be summarily booted.
Such a sense of security, it turns out, was entirely unfounded.
After 5.5 years of working for the UN with good performance reviews, I had assumed that my “separation” would not last long and that I would be re-recruited to my old “temporary” post after serving out my mandatory 31-day “contract break” (another way in the UN of saying involuntary unemployment, not to put too fine a point on it). It was only in mid-February that I realized something had gone terribly wrong, and I was not going to be hired back to my old job and was in imminent danger of violating Swiss immigration law.
I started by calling the Federal Office for Migration in Berne to get some information about what I could do as the American mother of two very young (both still in diapers) dual German-American citizens who have the right to reside in Switzerland. My partner and I are not married though most of the time we are a relatively happy family unit. As it happens, however, Swiss law is quite conservative on social issues, and I discovered that I didn’t fall into the category of people who are allowed to apply for family reunification visas (never mind that I was trying to prevent the need to be re-unified and merely wanted to find a way to stay unified). The official I reached by phone responded that since we were not married, I was considered a third country national and needed a new work permit. I told her that I didn’t have a job, so I didn’t need a work permit. She referred me to the Cantonal (equivalent of a state) migration office, which is called the Geneva Population Office.
For several weeks, I fought the good fight—placing call after call and seeking out official after official. It just seemed crazy to me that I could be separated from my family –my babies!—simply because the UN’s byzantine hiring system meant I had a break in my employment. But that was the upshot. And I learned that I didn’t have five months of running room at all: because my office hadn’t applied for the two-month courtesy extension in time, I had only the 90-day tourist visa to rely on, and to get that visa I was required to leave Switzerland for a period of time.
Exhausted, I gave up the fight and booked a flight back to the States for the following week. It was not an ideal situation, as I could only take one of my two children back with me—to those who have tried to do a long-haul flight alone with two children under the age of 3, I do not have to explain this. We had to pretend to my son that his birthday was actually a few days earlier than his actual birthday, so that I could bake him cupcakes and watch him blow out his candles (repeatedly…he really, really likes to blow out candles).
When I came back a couple weeks later after visiting family, the immigration officer in the Zurich airport stamped my passport and confirmed I have 90 days to be in Switzerland. My office in the meantime found a solution for my residency problem, at least a short-term one. That would be this five-week contract with a demotion. At least the clock is reset and this time I know to insist that the UN apply for my 2-month courtesy extension before I give up my carte de legitimacion.
Although, this being the UN, I have not yet—two weeks into this contract—received my “letter of appointment” which I need in order to apply for the carte de legitimacion which anyway takes at least three weeks to process. Which means it might not arrive before the end of my contract anyway. If you think all of this distracts from the task at hand, which is monitoring human rights abuses around the world (did I mention that?)—yes, you’d be right. Just a bit.