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Global trade union movement condemns unpaid internships, calls on UN to change policy

09 August 2016
In the lead up to International Youth Day, PSI joins NGOs and unions from around the world in calling for an end to unpaid internships. A growing resistance to the use of unpaid interns has led to the formation of a number of interns’ rights organisations such as the Fair Internship Initiative in Geneva and New York as well as the “We Pay Our Interns" coalition, a Geneva-based association of NGOs which commit to a charter on interns’ rights and lobby other employers to do the same.

The Council of Global Unions (CGU), whose members represent more than 200 million workers across the world, has called on the United Nations to end the exploitative and exclusionary use of unpaid interns within the organization. Unions called on the UN Secretariat to place the issue of internships on the agenda of the Fifth Committee, the UN body which decides on budgetary issues which will meet in New York in the autumn of this year. Such a move would be a key step in ensuring a living stipend for thousands of unpaid interns.
The use of interns as cheap or free labour is a negative employment trend across all sectors of the economy. While in the 1980’s only 3% of US graduates completed an internship, that figure has soared to an astonishing 75%, with similar changes in other regions. The major concern of unions is that these precarious internships are actually replacing entry level jobs at a time when unemployment is a key problem facing young people across the globe.

“How can we even begin to address the issue of rising precarious work in other sectors when the UN, the birthplace of Human Rights, is itself exploiting or excluding thousands of young people every year through unpaid internships “said Rosa Pavanelli, General Secretary of Public Services International. “I’m concerned that if the UN can’t live up to its own values then the future generations will lose confidence in its sustainability as an organisation”, she said.

These calls have been echoed by intern rights groups, media-commentators and many of the UN’s own staff. Alfred de Zayas, a special expert for the High Commissioner for Human rights, recently criticised the unpaid policy, saying “there is something inherently wrong when the organisation is not the first one to implement its own rules.”
Intern groups have highlighted how the current policy means that only the wealthy and well connected have access to internship opportunities. A recent United Nations Joint Inspection Unit report found that, although citizens from developed countries make up just 15% of the world’s population, they constitute 59% of the UN internship intake.

“The UN needs to change its administrative instruction on unpaid internships and ensure that a budgetary allocation is made for every intern, while reviewing its employment policies so that precarious employment is avoided for all”, concludes Pavanelli.


For more info: We Pay Our Interns

Read the entire letter authored by Public Services International, endorsed by the Council of Global Unions and addressed to Ban Ki-moon below:



We, the undersigned, believe that the United Nations and its agencies need to urgently address the status of unpaid interns within their organisations.

We call on the UN Secretariat to place the issue of internships on the agenda for the next Fifth Committee meeting later this year.

We urge Ban Ki-moon and the UN Secretariat to publicly call on states to support calls for a living stipend for all UN interns.

The current lack of remuneration clearly discriminates against people who do not come from wealthy backgrounds or developed countries. This trend was clearly identified in the 2012 UN Joint Inspection Unit report which found that, although citizens from developed countries make up just 15% of the world’s population, they constitute 59% of the UN internship intake. The UN recently identified inequality as a key issue to address for the new Sustainable Development Goals and it ought to be addressing this issue within its own organisation as well by making the internships program accessible to all.

Furthermore although interns now make up almost 10% of UN staff, they are unable to join the unions or enjoy many of the similar benefits of those they work alongside. UN staff are often placed in difficult positions whereby moral responsibility for intern welfare ends up being placed on their shoulders because the organisation itself is not providing any support for interns. Ensuring that interns are provided with a living stipend would address this issue.

The International Labour Organisation’s intern policy demonstrates a better alternative to the current system. A living stipend, adjusted to location, and the ability to join the staff union are key aspects of the ILO policy which should be adopted across the UN and its agencies. The cost of implementing such a stipend would likely be around $25 million per year: – less than 0.3% of the UN annual budget.

While there has been debate over whether it is the UN Secretariat or Member-States who should lead the change on this issue, it is clear that the UN Secretariat could be doing more. Although Member-States have the ultimate say on budget issues, the UN Secretariat often makes suggestions to Fifth Committee meetings where this issue could be discussed. UN OHCHR Special Expert Alfred de Zayas stated recently that “since we rely on the support of interns, it is in our own interest to appeal to the Fifth Committee to ensure there is financing for interns.” Member-States are much more likely to consider a change if the demand comes from the UN Secretariat as well as intern organisations.

While intern groups are busy lobbying Member-States to push for change, we consider it imperative that an intern stipend be publicly supported and championed by the UN Secretariat themselves. The time is now for the UN to live up to its own values by making its internships program an equal opportunity for all.




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