With the world economy still struggling to recover, young people continue to face unprecedented levels of unemployment.  The United Nations has responded by producing several events and studies, including May’s Youth Employment Forum at the International Labour Organization, as well as publishing the World Youth Report in 2011.  Consultations with young people will continue this year as Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has called for the creation of a System-Wide Action Plan on Youth, a map for how the United Nations system will address youth issues.  The United Nations will also celebrate International Youth Day, held each year on August 12, in recognition of young people worldwide.

IyD 2012

While it is to be commended for its increased focus on youth issues, the United Nations has failed to address problems young people face within the organization, particularly the thousands of interns that contribute to its work for no pay.  As an unpaid opportunity, UN internships are only available to those who can afford them, rather than those who deserve the experience based on merit alone.  The UN clearly states that all expenses must be borne by the intern, including airfare, visas, medical insurance, and room and board. With operations conducted in cities like Geneva, New York, and Vienna, few of the world's youth can afford the high living costs of a UN internship, no matter how deserving they may be of such an opportunity.

According to Ban Ki-moon, "youth should be given a chance to take an active part in the decision-making of local, national and global levels."  To the defense of all young people interested in contributing to the UN's work, I fail to see how the organization thinks that we can participate in decision-making when it only accepts those who can afford the high costs associated with an unpaid internship.  Young people are an amazing source of new ideas, passion and creativity.  The contribution they make to the UN should not be uncompensated.

Luckily, I am not the only one who has noticed this inconsistency. Just over a week ago, I started a petition through Change.org to call on Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and other heads of agencies to make a commitment to pay UN interns a fair wage.  As of this week, we have over 1,000 signatures, demonstrating that this is a legitimate concern of youth all over the world.   

unpaid is unfair

The UN has been fairly quiet on the issue of unpaid internships, a point I criticized in an article last February. A report by the Joint Inspection Unit concluded that UN internships are "overwhelmingly positive for all the parties involved" and are seen "as a win-win experience,” providing the "real possibility and hope that interns eventually may be hired within the United Nations system and be in policy- and decision-making positions."  While the report recognized that interns face financial difficulties in undertaking an unpaid position, the Inspectors stopped short of recommending a full living stipend without giving any reason.  They did, however, call on heads of organizations to consider requesting “appropriate funds,” such as a specific budget line, to ensure that internship programs are adequately funded.

Provision of some form of funding has been implemented in a number of other international organizations, including the World Trade Organization, the Inter-American Development Bank, and more.  Within the UN system, the International Labour Organization is the only one that provides a full stipend to cover basic expenses.   ILO Director-General Juan Somavia has said that he is “totally against” unpaid internships, stating that asking an intern to work for free represents a “total and absolute disrespect for a young person.”  As head of an organization fighting for higher labor standards, Somavia concluded that ILO internships had to “set an example” by supporting its interns with a fair living stipend.

For the rest of the UN system, unpaid internships remain the norm and it is clear that such a system has serious implications for young people.  According the JIU, only 5% of interns participating in the 2007 program came from the poorest countries in the world.  The vast majority, nearly 60%, came from developed countries, representing a clear discrimination against those who cannot afford the experience.  For an organization that claims to value fairness and opportunity for all, the UN fails to live up to its ideals when it comes to its interns.

While the system clearly favors the wealthy, a UN internship does not guarantee a job with the organization. Despite its commitment to youth issues, UN hiring practices ensure that few young people actually have a place within the organization.  According to another report by the JIU in 2007, out of 23,006 professional staff recorded worldwide in 2004, only 680 were below the age of 30, a mere 3%.  Compare that to the 3,500 unpaid interns it registered in 2007 and it's hard to deny that the UN is not hiring young people in any professional capacity.

Rather than finding paid work, too often interns are used as a cheap source of labor, undermining the integrity of a system that is supposedly looking out for young people. Just take a look at this current offer for a “Finance/Administrative Internship” with the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in London.  Among other things, the intern will be tasked with “undertaking filing and mailings; organising meetings and arranging catering,” all for no pay.  

This is just one example of many where the use of unpaid interns has become a shameful way to fill posts that should be paid.  Adding the word “intern” to the end of what clearly should be a paid job title does not change the fact that what the UN and its various agencies are doing is wrong.  While it claims that interns are “exposed to high-profile conferences, participate in meetings, and contribute to analytical work as well as organizational policy,” it seems dubious that organizing a luncheon for absolutely no pay significantly contributes to a young person's understanding of the policymaking process. On the contrary, it merely reinforces the idea that young people are an expendable source of free labor, a message few at the UN would (or should) support.         

Ban Ki-moon has stated that “young people everywhere deserve the power to get information, connect and ask hard questions – about justice, equality and opportunity” and that policymakers have the obligation to “listen to youth and answer their calls.” When it comes to unpaid internships, now is the time to start asking those questions.  As the UN prepares to celebrate International Youth Day on 12 August, young people and UN staff alike need to call into question a system that clearly discriminates against the very people this day commemorates.  Fair pay will ensure that all qualified young people, rich or poor, are able to contribute their passion and ideals to the United Nations. 

For more information about this initiative, please visit UnpaidIsUnfair.org

(Images: IYD logo and Ban Ki-Moon speaking to UN Summer 2012 Interns © UN; Unpaid is Unfair logo © Unpaid is Unfair)

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