NGOs: Addicted to free intern labor?

Interns at an office in Washington, D.C. Are unpaid internships ever OK even for NGOs and development agencies? Photo by: John Amis / CC BY-NC 

Regardless of the importance of interns to the labor market and to the development sector writ large, the debate is once again heating up about a practice that has supporters using the term “mutually beneficial” but opponents crying exploitation: young graduates working for free to jump-start their careers in global development.

The practice of unpaid internships can indeed help launch a career, but it can also exacerbate the wealth gap and hinder young, cash-strapped job seekers from finding work. In a setback for the U.S. Department of Labor, which is trying to slow the growth of unpaid internships, the Second Circuit’s U.S. Court of Appeals declared several weeks ago that private companies  — Fox Searchlight, in this case — could use unpaid interns if the intern derives more value from the arrangement than the employer, overturning a previous ruling by a district court.

Meanwhile in Geneva, approximately 100 people are expected to gather at public square Place des Nations on July 18 for a flash mob demonstration as part of European Interns Day. The event, organized by the Geneva Interns Association and the Pay Your Interns initiative, plans to draw attention to just that: the number of organizations still not offering pay to their interns.

Nongovernmental organizations and U.N. agencies aren’t alone in hosting unpaid interns, but why is it still such a common practice? Devex spoke to several interns, administrators and human resources professionals in Geneva — a key European development hub — to find out.

The intern experience

“I’m loving every moment of it and it’s taught me a lot of practical skills,” said Sabine Matsheka, president of the Geneva Interns Association, who is undertaking her first unpaid Geneva-based internship with the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

Matsheka is working as a communications intern, where she assists in designing and developing public information and communications products, helps to evaluate the existing communications products, platforms and services, and supports the management of social media platforms.

“I definitely feel that I’ve learned a great deal,” Matsheka said. “I’ve probably learned more in this internship especially because of the responsibilities they entrust the interns with.”

Though this is her first internship in Geneva, it’s her second overall. Her first took place at the South African Broadcasting Corp., where Matsheka acted as a news producer. She holds a bachelor of social sciences, international/global studies and a postgraduate certificate in law.

“As a student from South Africa coming to Europe, it’s quite difficult to become accustomed to the life here,” Matsheka said.

It’s no wonder. Geneva is one of the most expensive cities in the world; the Economist’s Big Mac Index rated it No. 1 in January 2015.

Expensive city, no salary

Matsheka, who is managing her unpaid internship with savings and financial help from family, quickly discovered that finding housing in her budget range was difficult. She was originally offered the position she currently holds for six months, as opposed to the three she will be doing, but budget limitations wouldn’t allow it.

"If you want to live the high life in Geneva as an unpaid intern, you're going to have a very hard time," Matsheka said with a laugh.

Geneva, where a high number of global development internships are situated, plays host to the headquarters of 32 international organizations and approximately 9,500 people who work for the United Nations, the largest concentration of U.N. personnel in the world. Though internship information in Switzerland is difficult to find, the State Secretariat for Economic Affairs reports that between 2004 and 2010, 13,000 new internships were created in Switzerland.

While a number of NGOs and U.N. agencies in Geneva do pay their interns, a 2013 survey by the Geneva Interns Association found that 68 percent of interns received no salary at all. UNOCHA and U.N. Office at Geneva declined to comment to Devex on their nonpaying intern programs.

In November 2013, the European Commission’s Eurobarometer polled 12,000 respondents aged 18-35 throughout the European Union about internships. Almost half of the respondents — 46 percent — had done at least one internship and nearly 6 in 10 did not receive financial compensation in their last internship.

The Geneva office of Human Rights Watch does not offer payment for interns, however; interns are reimbursed for their meals and their transportation costs. Despite this, the internship program is held in great esteem by the organization.

“It is something that we really pay attention to,” said Jean-Claude Gourdine, an HRW administrator. “We want them to learn from us first; that is the most important. Before we hire an intern, we make sure we know exactly what we are going to ask them to do. They come here to get some experience in our work in human rights.”

The program takes in six to eight interns a year and puts them to work in outreach, advocacy, marketing, development and other tasks. The interns are never to deal with administrative tasks, they do not do full-time hours, and they are under very few obligations, save for keeping to the confidentiality agreement and letting the office know if they’ll be absent.

“We have interns in the advocacy team, and the interns attend meetings at the U.N., and that’s a great help,” Gourdine said. “We are able to do more with them in the office. And that makes things easier for us because then we can attend more meetings at the same time.”

Paying up

Those organizations that manage paid internships find the fresh perspective and talent put forth by interns a huge boon.

The International Labor Organization pays interns that are not supported by any other institution or scholarship program. Interns receive a stipend of 1,850 Swiss francs ($1,950) a month, plus, since 2011, an additional 45 Swiss francs a month as a contribution toward the cost of medical insurance. The organization takes in about 200 interns a year.

The International Committee of the Red Cross also pays its 60-70 interns per year, according to Aline Lampert, human resources organizational adviser and HR manager for trainees and apprentices. The payment depends on the length of assignment and academic background “because we recognize the precious work that is being done by them,” Lampert said.

Bringing change

In the days leading up to the July 18 demonstration in Geneva, PYI New York City and Geneva have drafted a joint proposal letter to be sent to the director-general of UNOG.

“This is a proposal to call for a meeting to officially engage in a discussion about the principles of the Pay Your Interns initiative and plead our case to the relevant parties,” Matsheka said. “I don’t think it’ll all of a sudden get the interns paid internships, but it’ll definitely say that it’s a step in the right direction and any kind of attention that we can get for the movement is good attention.”

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About the author

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    Aliyah Esmail

    Aliyah Esmail is a freelance journalist and communications professional with a fascination for the economic and political realities facing nongovernmental organizations. She holds a bachelor’s degree from Carlton University in journalism and film studies and is now working on a postgraduate certificate from the Humanitarian and Conflict Response Institute in Global Health. She has worked for the government of Canada as well as a number of international organizations.