Why the UN must do away with unpaid internships

While the United Nations supports ‘the right to just and favourable remuneration’ and fights inequality, it leads the pack in reinforcing a system that rewards elites.

By: /
October 23, 2015
The United Nations Secretariat building is seen during the U.N. General Assembly at U.N. Headquarters in New York September 25, 2013. REUTERS/Eric Thayer

When I was 16 years old, I went to work for a suit retailer that will remain nameless here. The company was on the lower end of the suit market, the shallow end you could say, where polyester is rampant and a dinner jacket can turn into a pile of shoelaces with the single pull of a loose thread. My job was simple: Sell. Everything. Shirts, ties, pants, shoes, the whole works. In exchange for my diligent efforts, I was paid minimum wage, and like most people who work in retail, hated every hour of it. I eventually left, but what I “got” out of this job beyond my paycheque was that mystical resumé steroid known as work experience.

In a world where 1.2 billion youth are unemployed across the world, wealth inequality is increasing and class divisions are deepening, work itself has become a scarce opportunity. Payment for work has become a luxury; you can consider yourself lucky if you are able to sell your labour not for money, but for work experience. This is mostly because there are not enough jobs around for young people to do, but the rise of unpaid internships has been a contributing factor.

Private companies, elite think tanks, government offices, media outlets, NGOs—all of them have unpaid internship programs. So does the United Nations, which attracted worldwide media attention this summer when a local paper in Geneva reported that a 22 year-old UN intern named David Hyde was sleeping in a tent because he could not afford the rapacious Swiss rents. The spokesman for the Secretary-General made a statement saying that a General Assembly Resolution prohibited the UN from paying its interns. The head of the UN Information Service said that David Hyde “may not have done his research” because the UN cafeteria offered discounts for interns. 

The difference between the United Nations not paying its interns and a private organization doing the same is that the UN’s own documents and labour body counsel against the practice.

The difference between the United Nations not paying its interns and a private organization doing the same is that the UN’s own documents and labour body counsel against the practice. The UN Charter says: “The United Nations shall place no restrictions on the eligibility of men and women to participate in any capacity and under conditions of equality in its principal and subsidiary organs.” The Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “Everyone who works has the right to just and favourable remuneration.” The International Labor Organization’s Washington Director: “Interns should be paid and should be supported.”

So the UN violates its own principles here, but this is hardly news. As for the cafeteria in Geneva, I ate there regularly as an intern for the UN this past summer and a routine lunch would run a cool 11 Swiss Francs, or CAN$15. It turns out that the head of the UN Information Service was the one who had not done his research.

But criticizing the United Nations for being hypocritical is like criticizing a politician for lying. There are other, broader issues around unpaid internships and what it means to be a worker in the 21st century.

The most glaring inequity in not paying interns is that the people who get these jobs—and jobs are what they are, despite the legal loopholes—are the privileged. The rich can afford the cost of living in cities like New York and Geneva and can swallow a negative salary (you pay to work rather than get paid for work) while the 99 percent cannot. If you are working or middle class, however, you simply cannot afford to work for free and therefore must search elsewhere for employment.

Defenders of the unpaid internship cite work experience has their irrefutable proof. It used to be the case that employment meant pay plus experience—the experience was part of the package, it would be tautological to even mention it since no form of productive employment was without its own valuable experience. ‘Work experience’ is not a bonus. It comes with the job, any job. A free coffee, a train pass, another check at the end of the year, these are bonuses. But apologists for unpaid work have converted work experience into some kind of distinct good that the intern should consider herself fortunate to receive.

When Organization X gives unpaid internships, it cuts its labour costs significantly and frees itself from the many legal obligations that would be owed to interns if they were classified as employees. This has a distorting effect on the job market, with free labour now displacing full-time workers. Normally when wages are slashed to zero, there will be fewer people lining up to do the job, but there is another intangible force at work here: Prestige.

The Oxford English Dictionary lists as its first definition of prestige: “a conjuring trick; a deception, an imposture.” The word comes from 14th century Middle French, “denoting an illusion produced by magic.” There was a reason Christopher Nolan’s epic film, The Prestige, was about magic, and crucially, about black magic. More commonly, prestige is what everyone else considers estimable, status-giving, heroic, the sort of thing one can humblebrag about. The prestigious nature of most unpaid jobs at places like the UN is why poor students still apply for them. The non-monetary benefit of interning at a prestigious place is technically priceless, and if you tried to put a price on it, you might be astounded. A six-week unpaid internship at the UN put on auction a couple of years ago went for US$22,000. The auction was for charity, but an unpaid job sold for 20 Grand? Black magic, indeed.

For the less affluent youth who rightly recognize that prestige is an invaluable quality for their CVs, the unpaid internship is inherently exploitative. It is seductive for all the reasons that prestige is seductive, but it is also robbing them of any money that ought to be theirs. Something in our laws and customs and sense of decency has gone sour when a public organization subject to an extraordinarily favorable tax status pays its top directors hundreds of thousands of dollars with expensed meals and trips but will not pay a dime to the young people doing the grunt work. 

What makes matters more complicated is that the definition of “work” has changed dramatically in the Internet age. Work used to be what you did in the office, or in the mine. Now, you can turn your car into a wage-generating machine with Uber and you can turn your home into a hotel with Airbnb. You can commodify and marketize yourself and receive handsome profits if  enough of the Internet notices you on Instagram or YouTube. The serfs of the old feudal system gave way to employees in the capitalist system, and employees have given way to interns and contractors, hired and fired on-demand in the sharing or gig economy. The free-market has become the freelance market, with one estimate now putting the number of freelancers in the United States at 53 million. There is both a blessing and a curse here—a blessing because gigs give workers additional income or give jobs to the jobless, a curse because this sort of work is unstable and lacks the dignifying element of longer-term employment.

I have, in the past, been a disgruntled employee (in addition to the suit shop, also at a factory), an independent contractor (at a management consulting firm), a paid intern (in government), and an unpaid intern (at the UN). The last of these was possible only because of a generous grant from my university—a privilege most middle-class youth do not have. If anything has become clear to me in this current era of inequality and austerity, it is the illusion, internalized by millions of people, that working hard and playing by the rules lead to gainful employment and a fulfilling career. This is what I now call a Big Lie—a falsehood of colossal proportions which, unlike a minor untruth, is able to dupe the ordinary person who cannot conceive of being so grandly deceived. ‘Working hard,’ does not by itself produce anything if the market does not care about the work you are doing. Ask the laid-off or the about-to-be laid-off about that.

‘The rules’ are rigged, because the wealthy can obtain prestigious work experiences through unpaid internships, jumpstarting their careers in a way the poor and middle classes cannot. They are rigged for other reasons as well, larger structural reasons such as the wealth-gap at birth, the poor being punished with worse health and psychological outcomes because of the innumerable stresses caused by the lack of resources early in life. The outcomes multiple and metastasize into education, where poorer children hear 30 million fewer words and whose brains often underdevelop.

I do not say any of this to sound sentimental. Let’s be as unsentimental as capitalism demands. Fine, this is all up to the invisible, agnostic hand of the market sorting itself out, determining who succeeds and who fails, who can intern at the UN and who cannot. But then let us also admit that the only level playing field that exists is in our heads. Albert Einstein said that God did not play dice with the universe. He or She certainly plays dice with human lives. The market won’t correct for that, only government can.

Seventy years after its establishment, the UN should not be participating in an exploitative process while justifying it with self-soothing mendacity.  

Empowering the poor, emboldening the just, enlightening the uneducated—if these are not the principles which lead the UN and other powerful institutions into the future, the poor and downtrodden may not suddenly start listening to Karl Marx, but they will certainly stop listening to Adam Smith. 

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