UNpaid Is UNfair

The UN and unpaid internships.

by Juliette Wyss, August 15, 2016

Unpaid is unfair. That’s the slogan of the Fair Internship Initiative, fighting for stipends to cover basic living expenses of interns. But why is this actually even an issue?

Nowadays, in Europe alone, 5 million interns work for free. Not because they want to, but because it’s the only way for them to actually get an internship - for the so-called “learning experience”, the slogan of almost every institution that tries to hire labour for free. Especially in international organizationsand in the not-for-profit  sector, finding an internship that pays or pays enough to finance the life of the interns can be daunting. Especially in the UN and NGO sector, it is almost impossible to find an internship that pays or pays enough to finance the life of the interns. This is especially problematic if you consider the fact that the headquarters of the United Nations are in Geneva and New York, two very expensive cities not only concerning housing but also general cost of living. Geneva is even 33% more expensive than New York according to a living cost index from Numbeo

But the topic is not unknown. In 2015 it reached its peak when David Hyde from New Zealand accepted an unpaid internship at the UN headquarters in Geneva and decided to sleep in a tent close to the UN to avoid the horrendous living costs of the city. This story skyrocketed and was picked up by the BBC, CNN and many other international news outlets. As a result, the UN had to take a stand. However, instead of collaborating with the interns, they decided to calm down the storm and put the situation of unpaid interns into a different light. Ahmad Fawzi, head of the United Nations information service in Geneva, responded to criticism by saying that it is interns’ choice to apply for the programme, and it is their responsibility to inquire beforehand about the cost of living in their duty station. He added that it would be up to Member States to increase the UN budgetso that interns can be paid.

The executive secretary of the United Nations’ Geneva Staff Council sided with the interns, arguing that unpaid internships would prevent the top candidates from applying, especially those coming from developing countries. In 2015, the HQ of Geneva employed 259 interns that didn’t get any kind of remuneration except for learning experience.

Another interesting fact: the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights states at its article 23.3: “Everyone who works has the right to just and favorable remuneration ensuring for himself and his family an existence worthy of human dignity, and supplemented, if necessary, by other means of social protection.” Therefore, by not paying their interns, the UN infringes upon its own values.

The hype around the unpaid internships also opened up a new possibility for interns to unite and fight for salaries and spread public attention. Groups like the Fair Internship Initiative (FII), based in Geneva, New York and Vienna started to intensely work together and managed to get several meetings with important UN officials to discuss the matter and find a way to collaborate. 

Moreover, the FII started an online survey about the interns’ situation and published the data in 2015. The results are not only surprising but also rather shocking.. 

To summarize the data, 518 interns from 80 different organisations responded to the survey, most of them working for the UN or permanent missions in Geneva or New York.

74% came from high income countries and only 3% came from low income countries. What’s more, the survey takes away the strongest argument of the UN, the fact that the renumeration should be the learning experience gained. Most interns that responded to the survey stated that their time at the UN was a normal work experience, learning was not the main focus of their internship.

Even though most of the interns are from wealthy countries, 78% stated that they would not have been able to finance their internship without the support of their family. Many others had to take loans or use their student loans for the time they spent in Geneva or New York, making life more difficult for when they got back from their time abroad.

The survey did not only collect general data, but also asked for individual statements about the interning situation. Here are some of the anonymous quotes:

“My mother supported me to do this internship as a way to help further my experience but many days I had to ration the food I ate because it was too expensive to eat three times a day and I wanted to make sure my room was paid for so I wouldn’t be homeless in Geneva.”

“I had to move the family home in Australia to cheaper accommodation in order to afford rent in both Geneva (for me) and Australia (for my partner and children).”

“I come from a wealthy family. If I did not, I would not have been able to do the unpaid internship with the UNHCR”.

After publishing the results, interns from all around the globe were waiting for a statement from the UN. One that never came. 

In Vienna, the Director of Management and the HR Chief answered the Fair Internship Initiative’s question stating that they are “just implementing the UN Secretariat policies” and declined further requests for dialoguethe. The office from Michael Møller, Director-General of the United Nations Office at Geneva, replied with a message that basically stated that they were looking at how to improve the programme, but without further funding from the Member States, the Secretariat would not be taking any action - hardly a satisfying response considering the thousands of people concerned by the issue. 

This being an old survey of 2015, FII and many other initiatives around the world have launched a new survey which closed last Friday and will be published by the end of August. Sure enough we will keep you updated with the new results. 

One has to wonder whether it is correct that the UN, supposed to stand for equality and justice, willingly decides to not pay the weakest workers in their organisation. Those who depend on working possibilities, especially in a world where companies require more and more experience even for internships. Which leaves one wondering, how is one supposed to gain experience if everything requires experience?

To be fair, the UN is not the only organisation refusing to pay their interns. Most well-known companies decide to not pay their interns or to pay them with a so-called symbolic mount, which is largely insufficient to guarantee an acceptable living standard during the internship. 

But those organisations are well aware of the fact that they will not have to fear any drop in applications, as their name on a CV opens up many more and greater possibilities – for those who can afford it. 

The selection has therefore nothing to do with talent or potential but is based on financial resources. Because apparently in the end, money makes the world go around. 

However, even though this is a rather pessimistic ending, you can always take the initiative and support groups such as the FII. Share this article to spread the issue and remember that unpaid is unfair.