Unpaid Internships and the Politics of Privilege

At Al Jazeera English, I have a new article about the alleged auction of a UN internship for $22,000, and on unpaid internships in general. An excerpt:

UN internships may not be up for auction, but they are, in essence, for sale. The United Nations does not pay its interns, making it very difficult for someone who is not independently wealthy to take an internship. The only thing that distinguishes the alleged auction from the UN’s normal practice is that the unspoken class discrimination is made blatant.

“Given the high cost of living in key UN cities, such as New York and Geneva, undertaking a UN internship is an experience that few can afford, especially those from the very developing countries the organisation strives to serve,” wrote the group UnPaid Is Unfair in a 2012 petition calling on the United Nations to stop using free labour.

Their call went unheeded. The United Nations’ website includes a form for calculating the personal expenses an intern incurs – expenses the UN conservatively estimates at $2500 per month, not counting travel to New York City or health insurance. The intern is forbidden from taking other paid work during their two-month term, and they not allowed to apply for jobs at the UN for six months following the internship. “A possible source of employment would be the United Nations Volunteers Programme,” the UN website suggests. This programme pays no salary.

“For an organisation that prides itself on inclusion, diversity, and equality, the UN’s refusal to compensate its interns has created a system that counters those very ideals,” writes former UN intern Matt Hamilton, noting that only 5% of UN interns come from the least developed countries. Young people who care about international justice – including those who witness firsthand its erosion in poor, repressive states – cannot afford to work jobs structured on noblesse oblige.

The United Nations is far from the only organisation refusing to pay its interns. Most human rights, policy and development organisations pay interns nothing, but will not hire someone for a job if they lack the kind of experience an internship provides. Privilege is recast as perseverance. The end result hurts individuals struggling in the labour market but also restructures the market itself.

Read the whole thing, Meritocracy for Sale, at Al Jazeera English.

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6 Responses to Unpaid Internships and the Politics of Privilege

  1. Very good but its even worse within British media. Essentially everyone is expected to work a non-paid job until they get the permanent position.

  2. There’s a growing gap between the haves and the have nots. Growing larger every year.

  3. Pingback: free archaeology: ensuring that your workers don’t get minimum wage – not-necessarily-illegal unpaid voluntary work | conflict antiquities

  4. Pingback: free archaeology: ensuring that your workers don’t get minimum wage – not-necessarily-illegal unpaid voluntary work | (un)free archaeology

  5. tom says:

    This practice must be stopped, an internship should be paid and should be included in someone’s resume as an experience in the working field. Some companies prepare their employees to excel at their work. Their managers even resort to an effective corporate training course from http://www.mlpt.com/ to teach their employees to be more efficient and to solve in a real time any complicated human-technology problem.

  6. tom says:

    This type of practice is bad for your business. Every employee should be paid fairly and according to his working hours. On the other hand, the employer must provide his workers any necessary office and meeting supplies in order for them to do their job efficiently and on time. For instance, the employer can shop now from the G.G. TAUBER company the best meeting supplies.

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