The flags of member nations fly outside the General Assembly building at the United Nations headquarters in New York. (Adam Rountree/AP)

Following the very public spectacle of an unpaid United Nations intern who was living in a tent in Geneva to save money, there's been a global outpouring of criticism and debate about the international organization's use of unpaid internships. "The U.N. is supposed to promote labor standards and human rights," Ian Richards, executive secretary of the U.N. Geneva Staff Council, told WorldViews last week. "Instead, attention has been drawn to one of its interns sleeping in a tent."

Hoping to take advantage of the pressure on the United Nations, a group of interns and young professionals working under the banner Quality and Fairly Remunerated Internships Initiative (QFRII) last week sent a letter to Secretary General Ban Ki-moon that sought Ban's support in their campaign for paid internships.

[The 22-year-old unpaid intern living in a tent in Geneva has quit his job]

Dimitri Barbera, a representative of QFRII speaking on behalf of the group, told WorldViews that the initiative was first organized five months ago with the aim of creating internships at the United Nations that are "accessible to all qualified young people." The group is based in New York, where it says it enjoys the support of a "vast majority" of U.N. interns, and works closely with the Pay Your Interns initiative in Geneva, with which it jointly drafted the letter to Ban.

QFRII said it has not yet received an official response from the secretary general. But it noted that, during a photo session with interns working for the U.N. Secretariat on Tuesday, Ban had made an apologetic statement for the interns' "financial situation." Barbera said the initiative found the statement "very unsatisfying." QFRII is now reaching out to country missions at the United Nations to "explore the possibilities to bring our issues to the table in the intergovernmental negotiations in the 5th committee" — talks that take place after the General Assembly in September.

Unpaid internships are hardly new at the United Nations, and this is not the first intern-led movement for reform. In the past, many have failed, in part due to the limited time interns spend at the world body or concerns interns may have about their careers. Any decision to pay interns will likely face opposition on budget grounds. However, QFRII believes the timing is right to pressure the United Nations to change its policy.

"We believe, however, that the current international attention, thanks to the international media coverage, is unprecedented and could have opened a unique window of opportunity," Barbera said on behalf of QFRII. "The hard work of turning awareness into action has only just begun."

You can read the full letter sent by QFRII below:

 

14th August 2015

His Excellency Mr. Ban Ki-moon

Secretary-General of the United Nations

United Nations Headquarters

New York, NY 10017, USA

Excellency,

As a group of United Nations interns, students and young professionals united for the aim of achieving fairly remunerated quality internships within the United Nations System, we are submitting this letter to you with the intention of highlighting our concern with the current organization of the internship programs within the UN.

As the youngest contributors to the United Nations, we strongly believe in and are committed to the values of our organization. We therefore wish to align the working conditions of interns within the System with the values the UN stands for, which in our view are undermined by the status quo.

The UN Charter states that “the United Nations shall place no restrictions on the eligibility of men and women to participate in any capacity and under conditions of equality in its principal and subsidiary organs”¹. We strongly believe that the unpaid nature of internships places an indirect restriction on qualified young people who cannot afford to work without any financial and/or other support mechanism. “Candidates from non-developed countries are under-represented in the overall sample of interns […], which is not in line with what the organizations are aiming at under the principles of the UN Charter”². Figures from 2009 suggest that 40% of interns were from developing countries, with only 5% from least developed countries³. These numbers lend strong evidence to our concern.

Moreover, according to Article 23 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,

“(2) Everyone, without any discrimination, has the right to equal pay for equal work.

(3) Everyone who works has the right to just and favourable remuneration ensuring for himself and his family an existence worthy of human dignity, and supplemented, if necessary, by other means of social protection.”

With this in mind, and considering that interns in the UN System provide a fundamental contribution to the work of the UN, we believe interns should receive not only a formative experience, but also the necessary support, financial and nonfinancial, to make internships accessible to all. Interning at the UN places a significant financial constraint on individuals and their families. Most interns serve in Geneva and New York, recognized by the UN as two of the most expensive cities in the world⁴. Despite the recommendations of the UN Joint Inspection Unit’s report of 2009⁵, only seven organizations of the UN system provide stipends for interns⁶.

Furthermore, taking into account the current youth unemployment crisis⁷, there is a need to highlight the role of internships as “critical tools to facilitate the transition of young professionals to the labour market”⁸. We wish to see a UN that is a model for the world by offering inclusive, fair and quality internships that give individuals valuable experience to improve their chances of obtaining a decent job.

We believe that a better United Nations is possible, one where the relationship between the organizations and its interns is of mutual trust and respect. We have developed a number of concrete proposals on how to alleviate the current situation, which we hope to share with you.

As a vocal advocate for youth empowerment, your Excellency said at one of many occasions that “young people everywhere deserve the power to get information, connect and ask hard questions – about justice, equality and opportunity. Our job is to listen to youth and answer their calls”⁹. Inspired by your wisdom and support for youth empowerment, we would like to engage in a constructive dialogue with you and your team at your earliest convenience to discuss concrete proposals to improve the quality of internships at the UN.

Looking forward to your response, please accept, Excellency, the assurances of our highest consideration.

Quality and Fairly Remunerated Internships Initiative (New York)

and

Pay Your Interns initiative (Geneva)

Supported by:
Geneva Interns Association
WHO interns group
OHCHR Interns
UNOCHA interns
ILO Intern Board
UNHCR intern coordinators
Graduate Institute Students Association
Conférence Universitaire des Associations d’EtudiantEs
European Youth Forum
Interns Go Pro
Intern Labor Rights
Brussels Interns NGO
Génération précaire
Repubblica degli Stagisti
Platform Generation Praktikum
Dínamo - Associação de Dinamização Sócio-Cultural, Portugal
Intern Aware
Unpaid is Unfair
Canadian Intern Association
Interns Australia

1. UN Charter, Article 8.
2. Paragraph 17, Internships in the United Nations system, JIU Geneva 2009 (JIU/NOTE/
2009/2).
3. Internships in the United Nations system, JIU Geneva 2009 (JIU/NOTE/2009/2).
4. According to post adjustment multipliers of 106.2% for Geneva and 65.5% for New York,
respectively 2nd and 6th highest among UN duty stations, UN Careers website.
5. Internships in the United Nations system, Joint Inspection Unit, Geneva 2009 (JIU/NOTE/
2009/2), see:
https://www.unjiu.org/en/reports-notes/JIU%20Products/JIU_NOTE_2009_2_English.pdf
6. As of 2009 these were WFP, IAEA, ILO, UNWTO, UPU, FAO and WIPO (JIU/NOTE/2009/2).
7. 74 million youth unemployed in 2014, World employment and social outlook: Trends
2015 / International Labour Office. – Geneva: ILO, 2015
8. Internships: Building opportunities and skills for youth, ILO Washington 2013.
9. Ban Ki-moon, keynote address to the Global Colloquium of University Presidents at
Columbia University, New York, 2 April 2012.

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