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Amnesty International must respect its workers rights

18 November 2012

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The Independent (UK), 15 November 2012

Animosity International: Staff on strike in Amnesty offices across the globe

It’s arguably the world’s most venerated campaigning group. But now Amnesty is facing a crisis that threatens to tear it apart

[by] Paul Vallely

For more of the past 50 years it has been regarded as the paragon of human rights organisations – a globally admired beacon of liberty and hope. But in recent times a note of discord has crept into the public reputation of Amnesty International. Behind the scenes lurks a crisis that threatens its very existence.

Staff are striking in Amnesty offices across the globe, and a vote of no-confidence has been passed in its leadership. On the face of it, the human rights organisation is being riven over a structural reorganisation and a couple of dozen redundancies among its 700 staff. But the real problem goes much deeper and has even been characterised as a "struggle for the soul" of the human right movement.

There are disputes at the International and UK arms of the organisation, both of which are in London. Staff at Amnesty International UK (AIUK) have called for the resignation of its director, Kate Allen. Staff at Amnesty’s International Secretariat have issued a vote of no-confidence in the ability of the wider movement’s Secretary General, Salil Shetty, and his senior leadership team to continue leading the organisation.

The increasingly bitter crisis comes as cuts of £2.5m are being implemented at AIUK, despite a steady annual growth in income, and despite staff agreeing to a pay freeze. The cuts are being implemented so senior managers can switch large amounts of money to Amnesty’s International Secretariat in a plan to run down the London operation and build new "regional hubs" in Nairobi, Johannesburg, Bangkok and Hong Kong.

Amnesty management has responded by saying: "This statement by the union is not a fair or accurate representation of what has been a highly consultative and inclusive process of change."

But a senior director, Susan Lee, who runs Amnesty’s programme in Latin America, has now resigned in protest at the way staff are being treated. Picket lines have formed outside Amnesty’s offices in Senegal, Paris, Uganda, Beirut, New York, Hong Kong and Johannesburg. One union official, Alan Scott of Unite, described Amnesty as "one of the most mendacious employers" he has known. "Amnesty International cannot be an effective or credible human rights organisation if it does not respect the rights of its workers," he said.

High on the complaints of the staff is the lack of agreement on redundancy terms. (There are mutterings about Entwistle-esque severance terms reputedly received two years ago by Shetty’s predecessor, Irene Khan, and her deputy, Kate Gilmore.) But the unhappiness at Amnesty is far wider and deeper than the issue of redundancy.

It points to an ideological rift. One side insists that Amnesty must physically position itself in solidarity with those whose causes it champions, who are mostly in the poor world. The other alleges diligent and effective human-rights research is being sacrificed by marketing managers who want to "build the Amnesty brand" to recruit more members and raise more funds.

Amnesty was founded in 1961 to campaign for Prisoners of Conscience jailed for their beliefs by authoritarian regimes. But as the years passed its brief has been steadily broadened – to the point where, some allege, it has lost its singular effectiveness.

In the early years it widened its concerns to campaign against the death penalty and torture, for which it was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1977. It then widened its brief to include concerns about "fair trial" and oppose internment without trial. Then, in 2001, in a world changed by globalisation and 9/11 terrorism, it underwent a major shift. It began to concern itself not just with civil and political concerns but also with economic, social and cultural rights. As Salil Shetty later put it: "The ultimate torture is poverty. There are many more prisoners of poverty today than prisoners of conscience."

Shetty was brought in two years ago as head of the International Secretariat with the brief to rectify what was seen as a "weakness" in Amnesty – that it was far stronger in Europe and the US than in the global south where most of its concerns were located. Under him, Amnesty has adopted the slogan of "Demand Dignity", which concerns itself with everything from forced evictions to corporate accountability.

He devised a plan to move campaigners, researchers and media staff to "regional hubs", much as he had as head of the aid agency ActionAid, moving its HQ from London to Johannesburg.

But over the years mission creep has led to some supporters being alienated. In 2007 the Catholic Church, a strong Amnesty enthusiast, withdrew its support when Amnesty added abortion to its palette of rights. In 2010 Amnesty upset many feminists when it suspended Gita Sahgal, its gender unit head, when she criticised its links with the Guantanamo detainee Moazzam Begg, whom she described as "Britain’s most famous supporter of the Taliban". It was a move which Salman Rushdie described as a "moral bankruptcy" which had done incalculable damage to Amnesty’s reputation. Last year Amnesty’s support for Julian Assange angered many of its members.

Yet even those members of staff who agree with the broadening of the brief have been incensed by the way they claim research budgets have been slashed to find the money for the North to South decentralisation. "It’s utterly shambolic," one said. "The transition is being prioritised over getting the human rights work done."

There is confusion over whether staff in Nairobi will be paid the same salaries as London staff. What will British staff who move to Kenya be paid? What should be the redundancy terms for those who cannot move? Amnesty’s existing terms were set in a much more generous era.

"The management also do not seem to have considered security issues properly [in the regional hubs]," one insider complained. "But it’s more than that. They seem to be moving Amnesty into campaigning mode with big stunts and branding exercises designed to boost membership – at the expense of the detailed research on which our credibility depends. We will launch a campaign on Pussy Riot because it’s fashionable, chasing the energy, lurching from one issue to the next.

"The danger is Amnesty may become less interested in helping individuals than in using them as emblems of problems which need to be tackled – and getting them to sign a release form so we can publicise their story to raise funds. At present we are more concerned with setting up an office in India, and raising funds locally there, than in doing the basic human rights work," said the insider.

In 2006 an academic, Stephen Hopgood, spent a year inside Amnesty International and produced a book he called Keepers of the Flame. He charted through the years an enduring feature of Amnesty’s inner life – a struggle between those who seek to preserve Amnesty’s accumulated store of moral authority and reformers who hope to change, modernise and use that moral authority in ways that its protectors fear may erode the organisation’s uniqueness. It was a world, he said, of impossible choices. Over the past decade the choices appear to have got more impossible still.

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Statement by the Union

Strike at Amnesty International’s headquarters

16 October 2012

Human rights workers at Amnesty International’s global headquarters, which is mainly based in London, will be striking on tomorrow (Wednesday, 17 October).

The strike was sparked by the management’s unilateral withdrawal, without warning, of the redundancy policy just a couple of hours prior to releasing details of a restructure that will potentially make dozens of employees redundant.

Unite regional officer, Alan Scott said: “While many appreciate cuts to staffing are inevitable, Amnesty management must stick to agreements they have signed and publicly stated they will honour in order to dispel the pervasive mistrust that has taken hold in the organisation.

“Dozens of staff face uncertainty about their immediate future. Many know that their posts will disappear before the end of 2012, but because management have torn up the redundancy policy, they have no idea of what will happen to them.”

Management’s action at the International Secretariat is the latest in a series of broken agreements and promises over union representation rights, pay and temporary staff over the past 12 months.

Alan Scott said: “Amnesty International cannot be an effective or credible human rights organisation if it does not respect the rights of its workers. The organisation’s senior management must adhere to the same standards it demands of governments and corporations globally.”

While dozens of redundancies are proposed among lower salaried workers, the number of senior directors – who each earn between around £88,000 and £107,000 per year – has increased from five to eight in the past 2 years. The Secretary General’s salary is £192,800, bringing the total estimated cost of the senior leadership team’s salaries to almost £1 million per year.

Alan Scott said: “Amnesty International’s authority has been established through decades of high-quality research which is used to underpin its campaigning and advocacy work. It is imperative that the organisation retains this integrity and is as consistent in its internal dealings as it is with the external world.”

Amnesty International is about to embark on a major restructure that will move its centralised global headquarters, currently mainly based in London, to 10 hubs around the globe and fundamentally change the way the organisation works.

“They’ve told us that dozens of us could lose our jobs, but we still support plans to make Amnesty more relevant and effective worldwide. All we’ve done is ask that they tell us how the changes proposed will make Amnesty work better, show us they have a clear plan and treat staff with a bit of respect as we move or leave. So far they’ve completely failed on all three counts,” said a staff member.

“Events in recent months call into question the integrity of those now leading Amnesty International and this is deeply distressing to everyone who works here. It is with a heavy heart that we voted to strike,” said a staff member.



An overwhelming 96.5% of those who returned their postal ballot voted yes for strike action.

Staff members in offices around the globe (including Senegal, France, Uganda, Lebanon, New York, Hong Kong and South Africa) will participate in the strike.

For further information, or to get quotes from Amnesty staff members, please email/call Shaun Noble 07768 693940, Clare Fermont 07884184240 or Jo Cardwell 07949089589

Unite is Britain and Ireland’s largest trade union with 1.5 million members working across all sectors of the economy. The general secretary is Len McCluskey.

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The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, October 17th, 2012

Amnesty International workers on strike for their own rights

by Maeve McClenaghan

In a surprising move a group of staff from the human rights organisation Amnesty International went on strike today after senior management retracted their redundancy policy just hours before announcing changes that would result in dozens of staff losing their jobs.

In August staff at Amnesty’s International Secretariat were told that the campaigns and communications departments would be merged, leading to the loss of dozens of jobs. Two hours before announcing the merger management had informed workers’ union Unite that the organisation’s current redundancy policy would not apply to any staff who lost their jobs as a result of the restructure.

‘[Amnesty are] one of the most mendacious employers I have ever worked with… this is a struggle for the soul of Amnesty’- Unite’s Alan Scott

Dozens of staff from the global headquarters now face possible unemployment without an agreed redundancy policy.

Fighting for their rights

According to Amnesty International, a third of their 500+ staff members voted to strike. Unite predict the actual number of those on strike today was nearer to 300.

Picket lines formed around the international HQ in Clerkenwell, London and around 100 staff members gathered in a near-by church hall for a rally protest.

At the rally Alan Scott, from Unite described Amnesty’s management as ‘one of the most mendacious employers I have ever worked with,’ before describing the strike action as ‘a struggle for the soul of Amnesty.’

Messages of solidarity from Amnesty branches around the world were read out, as well as messages from other unions worldwide. The Beirut office announced they are striking in solidarity while a message from the Netherlands office recognised the ‘hard decision’ to strike given the disruption the strike will cause to staff’s human rights campaigning.

Alan Scott (Unite) addresses Amnesty staff.

In a previous statement Alan Scott said: ‘Amnesty International cannot be an effective or credible human rights organisation if it does not respect the rights of its workers. The organisation’s senior management must adhere to the same standards it demands of governments and corporations globally.’


Amnesty released an official statement in response to the strike saying, ‘We very much regret that staff have taken the decision to take industrial action, while fully respecting their right to do so.’ They went on to explain the reshuffle comes as part of structural changes to the NGO which will move work from the London HQ to ‘ten regional hubs around the world, located closer to where human rights violations occur, particularly in the Global South and East.’

‘We very much regret that staff have taken the decision to take industrial action, while fully respecting their right to do so.’

A spokesperson from Unite explained that it is not the proposed changes that those on strike object to but ‘the way in which it is being done.’

This is not the first time the NGO faced criticism for its management decisions. The organisation previously came under fire in 2011 when it was revealed that a secret pay-off to former directors had cost the charity £800,000. The payments were supposedly made to former secretary general Irene Khan, who reportedly received £500,000, and her deputy Kate Gilmore.

Speaking to press at the time Peter Pack, chairman of Amnesty’s international executive committee, said: ‘The payments to outgoing secretary general Irene Khan shown in the accounts of AI (Amnesty International) Ltd for the year ending March 31 2010 include payments made as part of a confidential agreement between AI Ltd and Irene Khan. It is a term of this agreement that no further comment on it will be made by either party.’