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.