Why the United Nations Doesn’t Pay Its Interns

Monday, August 17, 2015

Given all the dark and terrible events happening around the world right now, the plight of a 22-year-old living in a tent in Geneva may seem fairly inconsequential. And yet, the story of David Hyde – an unpaid United Nations intern who set up camp by Lake Geneva to save money – has clearly struck a chord with many all around the world. It’s already had some small consequences, too: Hyde has resigned from his internship due to the media pressure.

Hyde’s predicament may not seem like a big deal in the grand scheme of things: No one forced him to accept an unpaid internship; nor are such internships unique to the United Nations anyway. And yet, for many, his case highlights the U.N.’s moral inconsistency. By offering unpaid internships that can last up to six months in one of the most expensive cities in the world, the organization appears to promote a labor practice that discriminates against the poor and favors the rich.

“The U.N. is supposed to promote labor standards and human rights,” Ian Richards, executive secretary of the U.N. Geneva Staff Council, points out. “Instead attention has been drawn to one of its interns sleeping in a tent.”

So why doesn’t the U.N. pay its interns? According to Ahmad Fawzi, director of the United Nations Information Service in Geneva, the answer lies with a General Assembly resolution backed by member states that allows the United Nations to offer internships but doesn’t allow it to offer payment for them. This means that member states would have to vote to allow interns to be paid, Fawzi says.

Fawzi and other U.N. staff members have been unable to point to that specific resolution, but another U.N. document that governs the organization’s internship program does say that “interns are not financially remunerated by the United Nations,” and that the interns must cover all costs themselves. The same document also notes that interns are not eligible to apply to any position at the U.N. until six months after their internship ends.

Not all specialized agencies that work with the U.N. are bound by these rules – the International Labor Organization pays its interns a stipend, for example. Many other agencies do not pay at all, however: According to a2009 report from the Joint Inspection Unit of the United Nations system, of 15 agencies inspected, only five offered any kind of monetary compensation for interns. It’s worth noting that in Switzerland the U.N. and its agencies are not regulated by local employment laws.

Source: The Washington Post (link opens in a new window)

public policy