At the United Nations, it's Human Rights For All... Except Interns

Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon with UN Interns in 2012. Photo Credit: "Kate at the UN"



The United Nations, the ultimate global humanitarian aid organization, doesn’t pay its interns.


Let’s make this more clear: the United Nations, whose four tenants include “to improve the lives of poor people, to conquer hunger, disease and illiteracy,” whose programs include training in sustainable development, humanitarian assistance to impoverished societies and advocacy on behalf of better living standards and human rights, pays interns exactly zero dollars for their work. Interns, required to have at least a Bachelor’s degree and preferably a Master’s, are expected to work at least 40 hours a week for two to six months. All legal, travel and housing necessities are to be paid by the interns. If they want to be based out of the United States, it will be in New York City, the most expensive city in the U.S. and top 10 most expensive in the world. Medical insurance, which is required, must also be paid by the interns themselves.


For all its controversies on the status of legitimate statehood and the politics of a world authority, the work the UN does in humanitarian aid to impoverished nations and assistance after tragedies is what most countries and supporters can get behind. Its moral high ground on issues regarding basic human rights and providing tools to empower the most downtrodden is a stance even the most mistrusting of nations support.  And yet, when it comes down to it, even Goliath magazine publishing company Condé  Nast, oozing with fashion martyrdom, is more humane than the UN. Condé Nast, whose magazines were the inspiration behind "The Devil Wears Prada," paid their interns $12 a day for its three month internship before a class action lawsuit forced it to settle and cancel its entire program last year.


Where is the class action lawsuit against the UN?


24-year-old Ukrainian Yuliya Zemlytska holds a Bachelor’s and a Masters in Law, and was interested in the UN internship because of her studies “which mainly involve UN issues,” she says. She, and many others, says working for the UN is a dream for those interested in international diplomacy. The internship is perceived by many as an entry ticket. But she did the math: the minimum cost of living in New York is above the average annual salary in Ukraine. Realizing the mounting costs and not wanting to put a financial burden on her parents, she decided not to pursue the internship.


On a Facebook thread on the UN’s careers page, Zemlytska wrote that she thought it was unfair, to which some replied merely that she should just “work harder.”
“First I tried to look if there [were] any funds/scholarships that make this opportunity available for people who can't afford it otherwise,” she says. “Having not found anything I accepted the fact that the UN internship is not for me.”


Matt Hamilton is an American who started “Unpaid is Unfair,” an organization which advocates on behalf of paid labor at the UN. After graduating with a Master’s in 2011, he found most organizations expected he and his peers to work six months, full-time for no pay and then, at best, offer a very poorly paid contract without benefits.  


To give you an idea,” he wrote in an email, “people working at McDonalds were making about twice as much as most young people I knew who managed to get a UN consultancy.”


Hamilton says not only does it go against UN principles to not pay its employees, it excludes those who can’t afford to work for free and further skews the professional world toward wealthy people in wealthy countries. He says “the media” makes his advocacy out to be whiny, but ultimately that there are huge policy implications of unpaid internships.


“There are hundreds of professions that will be shaped by this ‘internship’ phenomenon… politics, journalism, the arts, even business. If it’s only the wealthy who can get their foot in the door, how are these professions going to look in 10-15 years?”