74% of UN interns come from countries with a high-income status, and 78% would not have made it had it not been for their family’s support.
In August 2015, the international media fell victim to a stunt staged by an intern at the United Nations (UN) headquarters in Geneva. David Hyde, from New Zealand, led the world to believe that he was living in a tent along the banks of Lake Geneva because, as an unpaid intern, he couldn’t afford to pay rent in Geneva, one of the most expensive cities in the world. In doing so, David Hyde succeeded not only in highlighting the plight of UN interns who are struggling to support themselves while completing their internships unpaid, but simultaneously exposed the hypocrisy of an institution that is supposed to be setting labour standards around the world.
The UN secretariat argues that their hands are tied by a resolution passed by the General Assembly in 1997 when it comes to remunerating interns. This resolution forbids the payment of non-staff, a category in which those completing internships are included. Since this resolution was passed, the yearly intake of interns at the UN has ballooned from 131 in 1996 to 4,018 in 2014. It would appear that the UN has come to rely on the culture of free labour that has become inherent in many of their internship schemes.
Outgoing UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki Moon, defended the UN’s stance by stipulating that many interns benefit from funding provided by a sending institution, such as UN member states and NGOs. Research conducted by the Fair Internship Initiative (FII), an organisation that is campaigning for the introduction of a living stipend for UN interns, has found that, in fact, 76% of interns in the EU rely on financial support from their families. This lack of financial support greatly impacts upon the diversity of interns, with very few from the global south. 74% of UN interns come from countries with a high-income status, and 78% would not have made it had it not been for their family’s support. The lack of diversity among UN interns is something that the incoming Secretary General, António Guterres, has promised to address: “I hope that there will be a consensus in the membership, namely the 5th committee to look seriously into that and to create more opportunities to people from the global south to play a decisive role in the UN. And I think this is essential for the perception of the UN.”
The Fair Internship Initiative are also campaigning for equal and fair representation of interns and for the establishment of a “focal point” within the UN human resources structure that will monitor diversity intake of interns and to provide important information for incoming interns on moving to Geneva. The FII is currently engaging with permanent missions and the wider UN system to work towards better inclusion, recognition and safeguarding of young people working for the UN. Trinity News spoke to three members of the FII on their experience working as interns in the UN.
Irini Proios Torras – Intern in the Committee Against Torture, Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights
“The only thing available for interns in OHCHR is a staff member designated as ‘focal point’, to which interns can talk to in case they have problems with their supervisor..”
Irini studied law at the University of Pompeu Fabra, Barcelona, before moving to Geneva to begin her Masters in International Law at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies. She describes her internship as a rewarding experience: she engages with projects of the committee on a regular basis and she has been given the freedom to combine her hours interning with her Masters classes. When asked about what kind of work interns at the UN are involved in, she said “It depends on the agency, the office, the team and lastly on the supervisor. There are interns who engage in substantive work, while other interns do more administrative stuff. However, it all depends on the intern, its relation with the team and the work available at the time.” Irini, like many other interns, has taken on work that other paid employees do: “I was actually given a whole project to do by myself, always under the supervision (and collaborating) with a staff member associated with the project.”
Interns like Irini do not benefit from any form of job protection while working for the UN, “The only thing available for interns in OHCHR is a staff member designated as ‘focal point’, to which interns can talk to in case they have problems with their supervisor… If not, all conditions of working (hours, days off, etc.) is directly accorded with the supervisor.” UN interns do not have access to the United Nations Dispute Tribunal or to the United Nations Appeals Tribunal.
Irini has been involved with the FII since she began her internship in the OHCHR. She explains, “I had already heard about it, but I was not totally aware of the gravity of the problem until I started interning. Then I realized that the situation was truly unfair. Not only because of lack of diversity, but also because I realized that it is actually pure free labour.”
Lorraine Wong – Former Intern in the Social Protection Department of the ILO
“Lorraine got involved with the FII because she felt unpaid interns are exploited by the UN.”
Lorraine Wong, now a PhD. Candidate in Economics at UCD, completed a 6-month internship in the International Labour Organisation (ILO), an institution of the UN. The ILO is one of only three UN institutions that pay a living stipend to their interns. It began paying its interns over a decade ago, when an intern was discovered sleeping in the basement. ILO interns receive 1,890 Swiss Francs per month, a figure still below the poverty line of a person expected to live in Geneva (2200 Swiss Francs per month). She also benefited from the presence of a strong intern board at the ILO, which both supports interns and negotiates better working conditions with the HR department.
Lorraine interned in ILO’s Social Protection department. The ILO takes on about 60-80 interns per period. Her main task in the department was data analysis. Upon finishing her internship with the ILO, she was subsequently hired as a ‘consultant’ for four months, where she continued some of the same work she had been doing as an intern, and in addition published three papers with the department. In fact, many ILO interns are hired as consultants following the completion of their internship.However, consultants don’t require a work permit in Switzerland, neither do they receive any form of benefits such as health insurance or the ability to pay into a pension, of which entry level UN staff can avail.
Lorraine got involved with the FII because she felt unpaid interns are exploited by the UN. Lorraine used her skills in data analysis to survey UN interns for the FII. The aim of that survey was to provide UN diplomats and the public with a clear picture of the situation faced by the majority of interns. In the most recently conducted survey (in 2016), interns were asked whether they felt that their experience was more of a learning or a work experience. The majority of those surveyed replied that they felt more like it was a working experience.*
Alex Renault – Former ILO intern
“The administration argues that the UN could not pay its interns without the approval of the Member States, which is true, but for that the administration has to produce a report and propose a draft resolution first.”
Alex Renault is a former Erasmus student of Trinity College who also completed a 3-month internship with the ILO as part of his Masters studies. Based in Geneva, Alex continues to work with the FII to improve the internship conditions in the UN institutions. He explains that it is the responsibility of the member states to change the law: “The administration argues that the UN could not pay its interns without the approval of the Member States, which is true, but for that the administration has to produce a report and propose a draft resolution first”. As a result, the FII is “now mobilising to meet with the permanent missions of some countries, (equivalent of embassies but specifically oriented to the UN) to encourage them to raise the issue to the UN secretariat.”
“Our campaign is run by an active presence on social media and internal lobbying within the United Nations”. The FII regularly holds meetings with UN member states permanent missions and have opened various lines of dialogue with UN HR and administrative representatives. “Both in Geneva and New York, our activities rely on active collaboration on social media and weekly meetings that are open to everyone.”
The FII is not the only initiative promoting the rights of interns, and in fact, it works with many other organisations: “There are many other ‘intern-oriented’ initiatives around the world and the FII has been actively cooperating with them (Génération Précaire in France, Canadian Interns Association, Interns Australia, InternsGoPro, Brussels Interns NGO),”. These organisations come together annually in December to celebrate ‘International Interns Day’. The FII is now working in collaboration with these initiatives on the creation of an “international Coalition on Fair Internships.”
The high turnover of interns in Geneva means that the FII is mainly composed of former interns. It also makes it difficult, Alex remarks, to keep their campaign constant. The FII members both in Geneva in New York remain hopeful however, and continue to fight for their right to remuneration.