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 a 2009 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.
There's no doubt that an internship at the United Nations can be a rewarding experience for those who choose to do it. However, a number of former and current interns reached out to WorldViews to criticize the lack of pay.
"So many generations of unpaid interns have only built up resentment and a bad reputation," Mireille Velazquez, a former intern at the U.N. headquarters in Geneva, explained.
Kaleem Hawa, a former intern with the World Health Organization, a U.N. agency, argued that the lack of pay for interns in such an expensive city produced "an intern community whose diversity was fundamentally at odds with the UN system's constitutionally mandated workplace internationalism."
"Most UN agencies are heavily intern-powered, ranging from at least 10% to 20-30%," Zhiming Yu, currently an intern at the United Nations Institute for Social Development, wrote. "If we strike, the UN stops working. No peace on earth."
Amman Rattan, a graduate of the London School of Economics, says he decided not to take a U.N. internship because he knew he could not have afforded to live in Geneva for six months without a salary. "By the way, what are the consequences of that?" Rattan added. "Like any old network, it means those who start out luckiest get the opportunities later on."
At the most basic level, the potential effects of the lack of pay seem clear: Sabine Matsheka, the chairwoman of the Geneva Interns Association, told the BBC that of the 162 current interns in the city she was one of only two from Africa.
While Hyde's tent brought light to the situation, it's hardly new. The U.N. has long had interns, and its interns have long been unpaid. The 2009 Joint Inspection Unit report suggested that the organization should consider providing some form of economic support for those on internships. In recent years, interns working for the U.N. have been organizing through groups like the Geneva Interns Association to protest their lack of pay. Just a few months back, a number of U.N. interns organized a march that argued that unpaid internships violated Article 23 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which says everyone has the "right to just and favourable remuneration ensuring for himself and his family an existence worthy of human dignity."
The U.N. does have the money to pay interns, Richards of the U.N. Geneva Staff Council says, but it is banned from paying by the General Assembly, in part because of concerns that so many interns are from developed countries. "However, by banning payment of interns, the General Assembly makes it harder for the U.N .to attract interns from developing countries," Richards adds.
It may not be quite that simple. Mary Dellar, a human resources officer at the U.N. in New York, says that paying interns would face institutional hurdles. "As a publicly-funded organization, we would have to go to the General Assembly and request [money for interns]," she says. She adds that in a current climate of cost-cutting at the U.N., such a request may not be realistic, and may well result in smaller numbers of U.N. interns.
For many, the hope now is that the secretary general or a U.N. member state will put forward a resolution to force the organization to pay its interns. Whether such a resolution would pass is hard to gauge: Many working at the United Nations clearly favor paying interns, but financial and political considerations can easily come into play. It's quite a remarkable debate to be sparked by an 22-year-old guy from New Zealand in a tent, but it's an important one.
This post has been updated.
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