Not so un-topical, this topic is dear to me because it affects me directly. It was impossible for me not to talk about it.
The debate on unpaid internships was brought back to the daylight by an intern at the UN who slept in a tent. Orchestrated or not, his stunt brought this problem back to the headlines.
As I recently graduated from university, and as internships are often the first step before getting a ‘real’ job, unpaid internships affect me. As a 24-year-old graduate, I choose to believe that I am worth something. That my time, energy and knowledge are worth paying my bills. That the five years I have spent on university benches or behind a desk at internships should now be paying off. I am not asking for much, just a minimum to sustain myself.
You will find many articles about why the UN does not pay its interns. They will tell you that the organization and specialized organs generally lack of funding, that the US owes them money, that it is the result of a resolution created when the number of interns exponentially grew and the finances available did not follow this trend. Those are excuses, and they are sending the wrong message. As an organization which promotes human rights and equal opportunities for all, their internship system is going the opposite direction.
By negating salary to their interns, companies and institutions create a culture of exploitation, making it acceptable to exploit others and their knowledge to meet their own goals. Beyond being ethically wrong, it also creates a vicious circle where former interns will hire unpaid interns themselves for the sole reason that they had to do it and survived. This bad habit is thus bound to linger.
Unpaid internships maintain social disparities. Those who are able to sustain themselves during a multiple month internship in some of the most expensive cities in the world (read NYC and Geneva) represent a small margin of the population. Those who either do not have the necessary resources or do not wish to take a loan must thus pass up this opportunity. Remember that the candidates who have the most money are not necessarily those with the most competencies.
Let’s move past this binary vision of the world, between the rich and the poor, those who have families who can afford to support them while they intern at the UN or any other institution, and those whose family cannot. Some young people simply do not want to rely on anybody but themselves. Consider that entering the job market is also an opportunity for young people to finally seize their autonomy, and rely on themselves to make a living. This is my case. My parents supported me financially throughout my studies. Studying was comfortable, I knew I had a safety net which would catch me no matter what. I was doing my job – studying- and, as long as I was performing, I had money. Now that I have left university and that my parents and I agreed that I should be independent financially (which I was very much looking forward to so I would have to justify my expenses to anyone), and that I am working and performing, I do not understand why I have to dig into my savings for it. I have a degree, I have various experiences, skills, knowledge and motivation and yet little money on my bank account.
What strikes me the most is some of the justifications that are invoked to justify why interns are not paid – No funds available – There are, however, resources to offer promotions to employees, to add another zero at the end of the big boss’s paycheck. But there is nothing for those at the end of the food chain, even though interns have a role to play in the results of the firm/institution they work for. Even if an intern is (sadly) only responsible for bringing coffee to his/her manager (which is not acceptable unless the intern in question is a barista), he/she is still contributes as, without that coffee, the manager would probably not have been able to attain the same results. Interns are worth investing in. They have brains ready to absorb new knowledge, the eagerness to learn, and the motivation to improve themselves. Use those elements and reward them.
Invest in the youth, they (we) are the future.
Tout travail mérite salaire.
Interns are human.
Pay the interns.
P.s. Sign the petition for interns to be paid here