After spending more than three decades pouring wine for ambassadors at United Nations headquarters, Mohamed Maher, the maitre d’ of the diplomats’ dining room, expected better treatment from the world body during the COVID-19 pandemic.
But when the coronavirus began to spread in New York, the company that services U.N. headquarters laid off Maher and dozens of other waiters, bartenders, cooks and servers.
At the same time, U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres offered lofty talk about protecting “scared” workers and their families as the global economy crumpled. Professional-grade U.N. staff now get to work from home on their laptops, while the blue-collar workers who cooked their lunches and brewed them coffee have lost their jobs and will lose their health care coverage.
“I’ve been there for 34 years. My colleagues have put in 20 to 25 years, dedicating all our work and our time to serve the U.N. staff and the [diplomatic] delegations for all those years. So really all the staff is upset,” Maher told HuffPost. “I want the U.N. to treat everybody fairly.”
The catering company CulinArt, which has a contract to run several eateries and cafes on the Manhattan U.N. site, has laid off that entire service staff — about 100 workers — since March 13, as COVID-19 cases grew steadily across the city.
Many of the discharged caterers now rank among the record-setting 3.3 million people who filed claims for unemployment in the U.S. last week, Maher said. While a new $2 trillion bailout package from U.S. lawmakers might offer temporary support, he and his fellow U.N. workers are disappointed that the people they’ve served for years are doing so little to help them.
The workers earn upwards of $15 per hour, with contracts that offer little security. Like Maher, who came to the U.S. from Egypt in 1980, many of them are immigrants. The axed workers also include such financially vulnerable groups as women and breadwinners for poor households.
The dismissed caterers have pleaded for help from U.N. bigwigs ― including Tijjani Muhammad-Bande, the president of the General Assembly ― but to no avail, according to Maher.
CulinArt declined to comment on the layoffs. U.N. spokesman Farhan Haq told HuffPost that while staffers employed directly by the U.N. are paid during the lockdown, CulinArt operates independently. He added: “All companies that subcontract to the U.N. are supposed to maintain fair labor practices.”
Meanwhile, U.N. leaders have expressed the importance of helping anyone suffering during the pandemic. Speaking to journalists on March 19, the secretary-general predicted a global recession of “record dimensions” with huge job losses and said women and other vulnerable groups would be the “hardest hit.”
“This is, above all, a human crisis that calls for solidarity,” Guterres said in the same week that caterers were being given notice. “Our human family is stressed and the social fabric is being torn. People are suffering, sick and scared.”
During his time at U.N. headquarters, Maher has overseen lunches for everyone from Bill Clinton to Tony Blair, George W. Bush and Jacques Chirac, as well as his favorite secretary-general, Kofi Annan, who served from 1997 to 2006.
Maher is worried that he will lose his health care coverage, which lapses if he doesn’t work enough shifts, and that he’ll struggle to support his wife and daughter during a contagion that experts say could drag on for months. He has already signed up for unemployment benefits and hopes for a speedy return to business as usual.
“Hopefully the stimulus that Congress approved will help pay my biggest costs, the mortgage and the maintenance,” said Maher.
Arthur Phillips, an organizer for Unite Here Local 100, which represents the caterers, said the U.N. should push CulinArt to cover the wages and health insurance costs of workers in any shutdown deal it agrees to with the catering firm.
“The U.N. needs to step up to the plate and make sure Mohamed and his colleagues are made whole,” Phillips told HuffPost.
“It’s shameful,” he said, “that these workers may be left out without being able to pay their bills in the middle of a pandemic while the U.N. makes public statements about standing together in this crisis.”
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