The plight of David Hyde, a 22 year unpaid United Nations (UN) intern from New Zealand, found camping in a leaky tent near the edge of lake Geneva, has sparked widespread condemnation of the UN and allegations of exploitation.
— Olalla Tuñas (@olalla_tunas) August 11, 2015
The argument for unpaid internships
A popular argument for not paying interns is that they learn career-enhancing skills during their internships and are essentially paying for an education. In addition, employers argue that training inexperienced people is time consuming. Not paying, or paying reduced salaries as in the case of apprenticeships, compensates for this cost. If employers were required to pay for interns they would stop employing them, leaving everyone worse off. Furthermore, interns are free to choose not to take these positions so there is no exploitation.
Unlike Mr Hyde’s tent, do these arguments hold water?
It depends. In particular it depends on the industry, supply and demand for positions within that industry and the ethics and objectives of the employer.
The supply and demand problem
Demand for UN positions is very high and the number of positions limited. Many see UN experience as a stepping stone to a paid role or an exciting position elsewhere and are prepared to forego pay to get a foot in the door, sometimes going as far as living in a cheap tent. Industries such as banking, journalism, fashion and many others suffer from a similar supply-demand imbalance – too many people chasing too few positions.
Risk of exploitation
When the supply-demand imbalance is large the potential for exploitation is high. Some interns risk ending up with jobs stuffing letters in mail rooms, making the rest of the team’s coffee or using preexisting skills, foregoing both pay and learning. In these cases the deal is broken. Some potential interns will recoil at these exploitative practices and stay away, but in many cases there will be enough remaining demand to fill the few highly sought after positions on offer. Many employers know this but put no ethical framework in place to prevent abuse.
In an interview posted on YouTube by AJ+ Ahmed Fawzi, head of the UN’s information service in Geneva, says “we don’t pay interns because there is a General Assembly resolution that prohibits us from paying interns. We are not allowed to even if we want to and believe me, we want to.”
In a BBC article Ian Richards, who heads the UN staff trade union in Geneva, describes the discovery of an unpaid intern working for the International Labour Organisation (ILO) living in a basement a few years ago. According to Mr Richards “That created a lot of noise in the press and, as a result, the ILO decided to pay its interns.”
These two comments are contradictory. Mr Fawzi says UN agencies are prohibited from paying interns while Mr Richard’s comment suggests that UN agencies can pay them if they want to.
What should interns do?
Be careful accepting unpaid internships. Make sure you’ll learn something valuable that will give you a leg up. Talk to past and current interns to find out whether it is worth it. For questions related to internships at the UN in Geneva the Geneva Interns Association is a good place to start.
There is also a case for avoiding unpaid internships entirely. The National Association of Colleges and Employees in the US did a survey in 2014 that concluded that unpaid internships aren’t worth it. Forbes reported from the survey that those who had invested time doing an unpaid internship were only 2% more likely to be employed than those who had done nothing. Paid internships on the other hand increased the chance of securing a paid job by 28%.
What should employers do?
Employers need to clearly demonstrate that their unpaid internships are not exploitative and do actually deliver career-enhancing value.
And if they want a level of diversity that includes interns who can’t afford to work for free, they will need to consider offering accommodation and financial support, especially in expensive cities like Geneva.
Vote with your feet
Fortunately interns are free to choose and Mr. Hyde voted no to unpaid internships when he announced his resignation to the media at the Place des Nations in Geneva.
Unpaid UN intern David lives in a tent (Tribune de Genève – in French)