UN pressed to review policy on unpaid internships

New UN intern David Hyde quits after living in tent while taking up post in Geneva


United Nations officials are facing pressure to revisit their unpaid internship policy after an intern who had been living in a tent near Lake Geneva resigned and called for “interns all over the world” to unite in a fight for their rights.

The intern, David Hyde, a 22-year-old from New Zealand, said he could not afford housing in Geneva while working at the UN Conference on Trade and Development.

He had been stowing most of his belongings in a backpack under his desk at the conference’s offices, the Tribune de Genève reported, and he was sleeping outside near a beach frequented by UN workers.

Abrupt resignation

Two days after the news report, Mr Hyde announced his abrupt resignation and sounded a clarion call: “Interns all over the world need to come together and push for the recognition of our value and our human rights.”

In calling for a global crusade against unpaid clerical work, Mr Hyde, who had worked at the UN for only nine days, said he had known the internship offered no remuneration and admitted he had lied to get the job.

He told recruiters he had the means to pay his living expenses, he said, only after losing other internships when he told the truth.

Even as he took responsibility for his immediate situation, he called on other recent university graduates looking to enter the international workforce to stand up and be counted.

Citing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Mr Hyde said, “Everyone who works has the right to just and favourable remuneration.”

Mr Hyde is not the first ambitious jobseeker to have spoken out against working for free, but he might be the only one to have called to task an organisation that declares, in one of its founding treatises, that “Everyone, without any discrimination, has the right to equal pay for equal work.”

‘I take responsibility’

Mr Hyde insisted on Wednesday the UN did not compel him to take the unpaid job, nor did it force him to quit. “The UN was clear about their internship policy from the start,” he said in a statement to reporters. “No wage or stipend, no transport help, no food allowance, no health assistance. I understood this, and in that regard I have to take responsibility for accepting the internship in the first place.”

The policy applies to unpaid internships established through the secretariat, said Stéphane Dujarric, a spokesman for UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon, in a telephone interview on Thursday.

Other parts of the UN, such as the International Labour Organization and the Food and Agriculture Organisation, offer paid internships or stipends.

Mr Dujarric said it was unlikely that Mr Hyde’s call for action would result in a quick policy change because of the UN’s complex budgetary process, but he said officials were concerned only affluent candidates are able to accept the unpaid internships.

“The problem with this policy that exists is that it does skew the internship toward people that have the means to travel,” Mr Dujarric said.

Ahmad Fawzi, head of the UN information service in Geneva, told the BBC that the programme offers other perks, such as reduced food prices in the cafeteria. “I feel this young man may not have done his research,” Mr Fawzi said.

Ian Richards, executive secretary of the UN’s Geneva Staff Council, said the policy also prohibited Mr Hyde’s managers from providing him with financial assistance.

“In the case of David, his colleagues were very concerned with his welfare and were offering to help with accommodations,” Mr Richards said. He said the internship programme, which is limited to graduate students, prevents the UN from attracting the top candidates, who choose paid internships from other groups to offset the high cost of living.

Developed countries

This leaves some UN agencies with students who are overwhelmingly from developed countries. Richards said only two out of the 162 interns in Geneva are from developing nations.

Ruchir Ferrero Sharma, who was the chief of social affairs for the Geneva Interns Association in 2012, said Mr Hyde’s situation highlighted a longstanding problem faced by interns there.

Supplying a picture from Facebook, Mr Sharma said that a 107 sq ft room there could rent for about $1,200 (€1,077) a month, and that a lack of online listings for rooms meant it was not uncommon for new interns to sleep at a railway station on their first nights in town.

‘Precarious situation’

“In a city well-known to be among the most expensive, not just in Europe, but in the world,” he wrote in an email, “unpaid interns at the UN find themselves in an incredibly precarious financial situation.”

Activists pushing for internships to be paid are hoping to start a discussion when the General Assembly meets this fall, Mr Richards said, adding that the secretary general or a member state would have to introduce a formal proposal for the policy to change.

For his part, Mr Hyde said he hoped the UN would live up to its own ideals. “I hope to see the United Nations become a role model for all on the issues of internships,” he said.

New York Times