Stop the AST/SC exploitation NOW

The secretarial and clerical assistants (AST/SC) function group (FG/’GF’) was introduced by the 2013 revision of the Staff Regulations (SR) that entered into force 01.01.2014.

The established ‘dinosaurs’ trade unions and staff associations (OSPs) did not oppose the creation of the AST/SC category in 2013. Now they hypocritically claim that they care about the AST/SC staff and want to help them. What they really care about is getting the AST/SC votes in the forthcoming staff representation elections.

Statistics

On 01.04.2021 the European Commission employed 1109 AST/SC staff (European Commission HR statistical bulletin), of whom around half are officials and the other half are temporary agents (TAs) (European Commission HR key figures 2021).

In terms of gender balance, the AST/SC function group is heavily imbalanced as nearly 4 out of 5 AST/SC staff are women.

Similarly, geographical balance is gravely lacking as 72% of all AST/SC staff come from only 7 EU Member States ((Belgium, Italy, Spain, Romania, France, Greece, and Poland).

Interestingly, DG Human Resources and Security (DG HR) alone employed 66% of all AST/SC staff members in grades 4 and 5 on 01.04.2021 (p.21, DB-2022-WD-II): all AST/SC competitions so far have recruited to SC1 or SC2, so these staff are disproportionately TAs.

As regards the evolution of human resources, Working Document II to the draft EU Annual Budget seems to indicate that the assistant (AST) function group is being slowly phased out, and that AST posts are being progressively replaced with administrator (AD) and AST/SC posts.

Draft budget: Working document II (p.75, DB-2020-WD-II; p.71, DB-2021-WD-II; p.75, DB-2022-WD-II) 2020 2021 2022
Number of AST posts converted into AD posts 150 91 90
Number of AST posts converted into AST/SC posts 222 140 45

Under the Commission’s proposed modification to the establishment plan, in 2022 the total number of posts in the AST/SC function group should reach 1251 (p.80, DB-2022-WD-II).

If this trend continues, it would be safe to assume that in the next 25 years a large number of AST posts in the Commission will disappear.

This assumption is supported by the European Court of Auditors (ECA) Special report no 15/2019: Implementation of the 2014 staff reform package at the Commission – Big savings but not without consequences for staff (Paragraph 25):

‘The new AST/SC function group was intended to improve the link between grade and responsibility. However, it will take considerable time to replace all secretarial and clerical staff currently in the AST function group with AST/SC staff. Based on the current structure of this population, the unintended side-effect of the 2004 reform regarding secretarial and clerical staff should be fully corrected in the 2040s.’

Similarly, Long-term PSEO [Pension Scheme of European Officials] Expenditure (Paragraph 4.2.10) prepared by the Working Group on SR Article 83 envisages that:

‘In addition, following the introduction of the new function group of AST-SC, in the course of the first 20 years of the projection exercise, secretaries and clerks will gradually replace the assistants till reaching the same number of members.’

Main issues

On 01.01.2021, the AST/SC staff had their seventh birthday as a function group. Sadly, there was nothing to celebrate about. Currently, our AST/SC colleagues are facing at least eight major challenges.

1) Very slow promotion speed

The average promotion speed of AST/SC staff, as laid down in SR Annex I, is considerably slower than the one of AST and AD staff members [1].

Let us take, for example, three persons who join the Commission on the same day at the lowest grade in each of the three function groups: AST/SC1, AST1 and AD5, respectively. During a career of 30 years, and given that the average promotion speed under Annex I is complied with, the AST/SC colleague receives 5 promotions, up to grade AST/SC6, unlike the AST and AD colleagues who benefit from 8 and 7 promotions, up to grade AST9 and AD12, respectively.

2) Very limited promotion quota

The first open competition EPSO/AST-SC/01/14 for AST/SC officials (grades 1 and 2) was organised in 2014, and the first AST/SC permanent staff were recruited in 2015, making the first of these new AST/SC staff eligible for promotion from 2017. Nevertheless it was not until the 2020 promotion exercise that a (very limited) quota for promotion of AST/SC officials was formally distributed to the Commission DGs and services.

Unlike the Commission, other EU institutions (such as the European Parliament and the European External Action Service (EEAS)) started promoting their AST/SC staff as early as 2018.

Why is that, you may wonder. The explanation is very simple. Although the SR apply to all EU institutions and agencies, the internal implementing rules (including those on promotion) adopted by different EU bodies could be (and very often are) very different. [2]

Let us quickly examine how promotion in the Commission works. The calculation of the promotion possibilities is governed by Article 6 of the SR. The promotion rates (laid down in Annex I, Section B) are applied to the entire active population of the previous year for the grades concerned, leading to a total number per grade for the whole Commission. After setting aside 5% of the promotion possibilities for the appeal phase, the adjusted numbers of promotion possibilities are distributed to the DGs, based on a modified distribution method in place since the 2019 promotion exercise.

It is important to know that, if you are not proposed for promotion because your DG receives a very small quota or no quota at all, you have the right to make an appeal against your DG non-promotion proposal to the Joint Promotion Committee (JPC), and the JPC could decide to propose you for promotion using its 5% promotion quota.

3) Very small net salary increase

When AST/SC1 staff get their first promotion after waiting for 4 years on average, the increase of their net salary (after taxes and deductions) is close to zero.

Let us take, for example, those same three people who join the Commission on the same day in Brussels as AST/SC1/1, AST1/1 and AD5/1, respectively. If we assume that all three of them are single (no family or children allowances) and are entitled to the expatriation allowance (16%), the net salary increase after their first promotion is as follows: 15 EUR for the AST/SC colleague (AST/SC2/1 net salary minus AST/SC1/3 net salary; 4 years of waiting; plus 2 steps), 215 EUR for the AST colleague (AST2/1 net salary minus AST1/2 net salary; 3 years of waiting; plus 1 step), and 378 EUR for the AD colleague (AD6/1 net salary minus AD5/2 net salary; 3 years of waiting; plus 1 step).

In 30 years, the same three colleagues who joined the Commission in Brussels at the age of 36 as AST/SC1/1, AST1/1 and AD5/1, should normally retire, at the age of 66 [3], at grade AST/SC6/1, AST9/1 and AD12/1, respectively.

After 30 years of service, the difference in the net salary increase of the AST/SC, AST and AD colleagues (assuming that all three of them remain single and entitled to the expatriation allowance) is shocking:

This means that the net monthly salary of AST/SC staff would barely change during a ‘career’ of 30 years.

The low salaries of AST/SC staff members are noted in the ECA Special report no 15/2019 (Paragraph 60):

 ‘Staff recruited after 2004 and 2014 are employed under less favourable conditions than applied previously. The 2004 reform reduced entry-grade salaries, and the 2014 package created the AST/SC function group with a less attractive salary grid.’

4) Minimum pension by design

When they retire, AST/SC colleagues will always get the minimum pension because that minimum will always be significantly higher than the basic retirement pension. The reason for this is that last basic salary of AST/SC, grade 6, is simply too low to cross the threshold.

‘The minimum amount of the retirement pension could not be less than 4 % of the minimum subsistence figure (basic salary of AST 1) per year of service.’ (Staff Matters) [4]

Let us take, for example, a person who joins the Commission as AST/SC1/1 at the age of 36 and retires, after a ‘career’ of 30 years, at the age of 66 as AST/SC6/1. Because the last basic salary of the AST/SC colleague is very low, the minimum pension (30 years x 4% x AST1/1 basic salary) will always be higher than the basic retirement pension (30 years x 1.8% x AST/SC6/1 basic salary).

However, in the same circumstances (recruitment at age 36 and retirement at age 66), AST and AD colleagues will always get a basic retirement pension (30 years x 1.8% x AST9/1 basic salary for AST, or 30 years x 1.8% x AD12/1 basic salary for AD) which will be much higher than the minimum pension (30 years x 4% x AST1/1 basic salary).

5) AST/SC staff asked to do AST jobs

Sadly, the Commission services keep publishing vacancies for posts artificially downgraded to AST/SC category that used to be decently paid, career-rich and motivating AST3 jobs before the 2013 SR reform.

This unfair and abusive practice is in sharp contrast with the purpose of the latest staff reform, as pointed out in the ECA Special report no 15/2019 (Paragraph 25):

 ‘The new AST/SC function group was intended to improve the link between grade and responsibility.’

The problem is that the job descriptions do not reflect the different level of responsibilities of AST/SC and AST function groups under SR Annex I. Therefore, such vacancy notices are illegal, in violation of the SR and can be annulled by the Court of Justice of the EU.

  1. Function group AST
Senior assistant Carrying out administrative, technical or training activities requiring a high degree of autonomy and carrying significant responsibilities in terms of staff management, budget implementation or political coordination AST10-AST11
Assistant Carrying out administrative, technical or training activities requiring a certain degree of autonomy, in particular with regard to the implementation of rules and regulations or general instructions or as personal assistant of a Member of the institution, of the Head of a Member’s private office or of a (Deputy) Director-General or an equivalent senior manager AST1-AST9

 

  1. Function group AST/SC
Secretary/Clerk Carrying out clerical and secretarial tasks, office management and other equivalent tasks requiring a certain degree of autonomy SC1-SC6

For example, vacancy notice COM/2021/1528 – Programme Agent – Support to Programme Management (SC1/SC6) reads as follows:

‘We propose a Programme Agent post in a friendly, dynamic and stimulating work environment, to assist in the development of research and innovation policies linked to the 2050 climate neutrality objective of the European Green Deal.

More specifically, the successful candidate under the guidance of a senior official will:

  • Provide support and assist in the development of research and innovation policies linked to the 2050 climate neutrality objective of the European Green Deal.
  • Assist in the development of a research and innovation agenda to support the 2050 climate neutrality objective of the European Green Deal.
  • Follow up relevant EU research and innovation actions and assist in the analysis of policy documents, drafting of briefings and organisation of meetings, workshops, events.
  • Assist in the launching, managing and monitoring of calls for proposals and tenders.’

The only task that corresponds to AST/SC level of duties is ‘organisation of meetings, workshops, events’; all the rest is clearly AST level of responsibilities that must be performed by AST staff according to the SR.

Another striking example is vacancy notice COM/2021/1751 – Logistic Agent (SC1/SC6) which reads as follows:

‘The chosen official will take the position of team leader in charge of supervising and leading the logistics/huissiers [bailiff] team (more than 20 people).

The team leader will also be instrumental in the effective and progressive implementation of the Synergies and Efficiencies project as decided by the Commission. S/he will work out and implement a change management program for the team so that the working methods and the service delivery model (including quality follow-up) be adapted to the ever increasing number of meeting and conference rooms to be operated, taking into account the geographical dispersion resulting from this increase.

The team leader will also be in charge of integrating into the working methods new tasks relating to the logistics and facilities of conference and meeting room day to day operations.’

Obviously, managing a team of more than 20 people, designing and implementing a change management program for the team, and integrating into the working methods new tasks, requires a higher level of responsibilities that must be performed by AST or AD staff according to the SR.

A very common practice, in violation of the SR, is publishing vacancies for financial assistants disguised as AST/SC posts. For example, vacancy notice COM/2021/1647 – Finance and Contracts Agent (SC1/SC6) reads as follows:

‘The financial assistant will work in close cooperation with the team leader of the financial cell in managing administrative & operational budget, implementation and control. This implies launching commitment files, payments and contracts follow up.

The follow up and monitoring of Communication Framework Contracts (FWCs) will be part of the duties. He/she will maintain good contacts with colleagues in and outside DG R&I, including DG Communication & SCIC, as well as with external contractors; he/she will provide support to the Communication Officers in the Unit and advice service-users on financial and contractual aspects.

We look for a highly motivated and committed colleague with proven experience in financial management of files, using appropriate tools such as ABAC workflow and other financial & administrative tools such as ARES. The new colleague will ensure the application of Commission rules and procedures related to Financing Decisions, call for tenders, contracts, commitments and payments. We look for a colleague with a capacity to analyse complex files/documents in relation with financial, legal and contractual issues and provide comments and advice to colleagues and hierarchy.’

It is obvious that the level of responsibilities under vacancy notice COM/2021/1647 – Finance and Contracts Agent – (SC1/SC6), namely launching commitment files, payments and contracts follow-up, advice service-users on financial and contractual aspects, analyse complex files/documents in relation with financial, legal and contractual issues, and provide comments and advice to colleagues and hierarchy, corresponds to the AST function group as provided for in SR Annex I.

As this famous experiment shows, even monkeys protest when ‘Equal pay for equal work’ principle is not respected.

You can imagine the frustration, disappointment and demotivation of our AST/SC colleagues who are asked to do AST level of work but denied the salary, opportunities and pension of the AST function group.

As pointed out in the ECA Special report no 15/2019 (Paragraphs 52-73), the latest staff reform had a number of negative consequences for staff:

  • declining job satisfaction
  • increased contract and pay diversity
  • less attractive pay package over the years

6) Internal competitions

In 2018, AST/SC staff were given – for the first and only time so far – the chance to participate in an internal competition organised by the Commission. However, AST/SC colleagues were allowed to apply only for AST/SC2 posts and, therefore, excluded from applying to AST and AD posts in the 2018 internal competition:

 ‘3) Specific conditions – function group and grade

On the closing date for online applications, you must belong to the following function group:

For COM/01/AST-SC/18 (AST/SC2), you must be an AST/SC official or AST/SC temporary agent or GFII contract agent;

For COM/02/AST/18 (AST2), you must be an AST official or AST temporary agent or GFIII or GFIV contract agent;

For COM/03/AD/18 (AD6), you must be an AD official or AD temporary agent or GFIV contract agent.’

We believe that everyone who possess the necessary qualifications and work experience must be allowed to apply to any grade and function group, irrespective of the type of post they occupy at the time of publishing the internal competition notice.

Unlike the Commission, other EU institutions, such as the European Parliament, the Court of Justice and the Committee of the Regions [5] do allow AST/SC staff to apply for AST posts in their internal competitions.

In our note on access to internal competitions, we asked DG HR to address the legitimate expectations of contract agents (CAs) and assistants, and to ensure equal treatment of all colleagues as provided for in SR Article 29(1)(d).

7) Certification procedure

Under SR Article 45a, only AST staff are eligible to participate in the certification procedure. This procedure, organised by the Commission every year since 2005, allows members of the AST function group, in grade AST5 or above, to become members of the AD function group.

According to DG HR reply of 06/08/2020, the application of this instrument has led to the certification of more than 1000 AST colleagues, 953 of whom have already been appointed in the AD function group.

Sadly, AST/SC staff are excluded from this career opportunity.

8) Junior Professionals Programme (JPP)

Although AST/SC staff have, in theory, access to the JPP, the requirement of maximum 3 years of professional experience (inside or outside the EU institutions) makes, in practice, the majority of AST/SC colleagues ineligible to participate in the JPP.

Possible solutions

We urge DG HR to implement immediately the below measures which do not require any changes to the SR:

  • Ensure a fairer distribution of promotion quotas to all function groups: AST/SC, AST and AD
  • Allow staff to apply for posts in a higher function group in the Commission internal competitions

What you personally can do is to appeal against your DG non-proposal for promotion and ask the JPC to propose you for promotion using its own 5% promotion quota. Please be aware that you must submit your appeal within 5 working days from the date of publication of DGs proposal lists (expected on 17 June for the 2021 promotion exercise). As usual, we will help you by providing an appeal template, showing you how to use it and reviewing your draft appeal.

We are preparing a petition to the European Parliament based on the 8 points listed here to raise awareness among Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) of the unfair treatment of the AST/SC function group, and to call for the EU legislator to improve the situation of the AST/SC staff members. You can support our petition by completing this short survey.

Conclusion

Until and unless the above challenges are properly addressed, the AST/SC staff members’ frustration, disappointment and demotivation will only be further growing and deepening.

We, at Generation 2004, strongly believe that the unfair treatment of AST/SC staff must be stopped, and we will continue to fight hard for improving the situation of our AST/SC colleagues.

As usual, we will be glad to hear from you.

———————————————-

[1] See DG HR, 2021, Human Resources in 2020   p. 96 for promotion speeds: someone in grade AST/SC1 is promoted at a slower rate than colleagues in AD5-AD10.

[2] Other examples of divergence are e.g. EP contribution to teleworking costs and the Court of Auditors and the Council allowing the occasional telework days to be spent outside the place of employment.

[3] Check out how the age of retirement and pension accrual rate change with each reform of the Staff Regulations (Slide 21, Slide 13).

‘Annual accrual rate of pension rights: The rate at which an employee build up pension benefits whilst working (2 %, 1.9 % or 1.8 % per year). For example, an annual accrual rate of 2 % means that, for each year of service, the employee accumulates 2 % of pension benefits.’ ECA, 2019, Special report no 15/2019: Implementation of the 2014 staff reform package at the Commission – Big savings but not without consequences for staff

[4] Note that an AST1/1 wage is considered a ‘subsistence’ figure, while AST/SC1 staff earn less than this.

[5] Committee of the Regions added here 17.06.2021.

Leave a Reply