The shame of unpaid internships at the United Nations: the interns protest

Marianna Lepore

Marianna Lepore

Scritto il 22 Lug 2015 in International

More than 200 people, in Brussel only, to support interns’ rights: it’s the European Interns Day organized on Saturday July 18th by 20 NGOs - including InternsGoPro and the European Youth Forum – to draw attention on this issue. Unpaid internships are a worldwide problem and the situation is getting worse thanks to the economic crisis: 60% of the 4.5 million interns in Europe are unpaid and 40% work without a contract. 

But the most unbelievable fact is that many of these internships are for international organizations like the United Nations. Repubblica degli Stagisti, the most important Italian online newspaper completely dedicated to the defense of interns, has been revealing the inequity of unpaid internships in the non-governmental organizations from many years

We started in 2011 writing about the “black list of international organization”, where internships were unpaid. The article was mentioning the Genève case: already back then, interns were unpaid as in other UN offices, such as Wien and New York. In 2014 RdS wrote about unpaid internships within Italian NGOs: in that case young interns were unpaid, too, while the no profit sector was growing, representing the 6,4% of the Italian economy. On July of the same year RdS wrote about another case: UNCHR in Rome was offering 35euro a month for its interns. The same cost of the bus monthly pass in the city. And it was even in contrast with the Italian law which foresees the obligation to provide a refund for extracurricular internships.

The demonstration of July 18th took place also in Genève, among other locations, in Place des Nations, where sixty people, among interns, students, and young professionals, demonstrated asking the UN to provide fairly remunerated quality internships.  

During the event, organized by the Geneve Interns Association and the Pay Your Interns initiative, young people were showing slogan “Unpaid is unfair” in front of the United Nation Palace. In the city where the headquarters of 32 international organizations are situated, according to a 2013 survey of the European Commission’s Eurobarometer, 67% of trainees are unpaid, making internships accessible only to those who have financial support from their family

That’s why on May 1st, 2015, a group of young interns decided to create the Pay your interns movement, which now has already around 900 supporters on Facebook. It’s a group of students, interns and young professionals of different affiliations, «united by the aim of achieving fairly remunerated quality internships, and hence to give to every young person equal chance to advance in his or her career, regardless of the economic and social background».

One of the purpose of the United Nations is to promote worldwide the principles of article 23 of the Universal Declaration of Human rights: «everyone who works has the right to just and favorable remuneration». But, it fails to do so within its own organization. And this happens in Geneve, one of the most expensive city in the world, according to the ECA

Surely, the situation has been getting worse due to the economic crisis, which has had a massive impact on international organization and NGO funding. As a result, interns are often hired for positions that require certain expertise, and that in the past would have been filled by paid employees.

But something might change, at least for not international organization and NGOs interns, thanks to a petition launched by Francois Leford. A member of Genève’s green party, Leford put forward a local parliamentary motion calling for an end to the abuse of internships. In the petition he’s asking for all interns to be properly paid, from 1,100 chf a month, for those with a bachelor degree, and 2,200 chf for master and higher degrees.

Only by stopping unpaid internships, we will be able to help young people facing their future. In the meanwhile, interns have a new help from InternsGoPro, a network of youth-led organizations, whose mission is to promote a new standard for internships. On their website, it is possible to find online ratings of various internship programs, and information such as if an internship, even if unpaid, gives real opportunities to find a job after its conclusion.

«The Genève event was very successful» says Matteo De Simone, member of Pay your interns to Repubblica degli Stagisti. «It’s the second public event we have organized and there was a good media attention. Participants were students and university associations. There’s going to be a “Youth initiative day” in October. And in a few weeks we are going to send an open letter to UNS and to general directors with the intention of highlighting our concern with the current organization of the internship programs within the UN».

Pay your interns
have many concrete proposals they want to submit to UNS, wishing to align the working conditions of interns within the system with the values the UN stands for. 

Marianna Lepore

Photos credits: Antonio Bellotta