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The unpaid internships phenomenon

Work experience has become a prerequisite for those students and young graduates who want to launch a successful career. Entry job positions seek for some prior work experience: either volunteer or through an internship. Most students, before they even go into job hunting, will start looking for internships in the sector that they want to kick start their prospective careers. But is this beneficial? Europa United’s Klaudjo Kavaja investigates.

I decided to write this piece after hearing about the recent decision of the World Health Organisation (WHO) to start offering paid internships following a successful campaign by one of its former interns, Ashton Barnett-Vanes, a number of months ago. WHO have now become one of the major UN agencies that pay their interns, but not all agencies  have the required budget to pay the hundreds or thousands of interns they receive every year. Some time ago I interned for UNESCO in Paris. I still have fond memories of that experience and the time spent both in the office and the city. Yet, without my studies’ scholarship I would not have been able to do that internship due to the high costs of living.

Ashton Barnett-Vanes celebrates the WHO intern approval.

One of the main problems with unpaid internships in international organisations is that they tend to be exclusive, with interns coming from well-to-do backgrounds and high-income countries. Interns coming from the developing countries are underrepresented, although the majority of world population lives in those countries. This imbalance in opportunities goes against the whole spirit of such organisations who aim for a more equitable global world and tackle underdevelopment challenges. Lower socioeconomic status (SES) students need to look for a scholarship from their own governments, their study programmes, or a foundation, in order to cover the living costs of their internship.

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Low income, high living costs

In some cases where remuneration is offered for an internship position, the amount is not suitable for covering the living costs. This partial payment, amounting to some hundred euro, cannot cover the costs of accommodation, food, transport, pocket money, and sometimes relocation costs. The headquarters and main offices of international institutions are based in expensive cities like New York, Geneva and Brussels, putting an additional strain on students’ or young graduates’ budget.

The internship needs to consist of genuine learning experience for youth, giving them an opportunity for personal growth and for putting their theoretical knowledge into practice. It should not be relegated into an experience where the intern feels useless, or that he/she is not learning or growing within the organisation. For the internship to be fair, the tasks that the intern is assign with need to contain more than printing or making photocopies of documents, or proofreading of various texts. This can be detrimental to the passion of students to follow a specific career path.

As for EU Institutions, they offer traineeships that remunerate their prospective trainees accordingly. In a landmark decision this July the EU decided to remunerate the interns serving under an MEP. In similar fashion, last year also the EEAS took steps to remunerate its interns serving in the various EU Delegations accordingly. Similar initiatives to crack down on unpaid internships should be undertaken in every member state of the Union, so that youth are not treated as cheap or inexpensive labour and that employers stop taking advantage of their need for professional experience.

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3 replies »

  1. Since I began to do consultancies in my areas of child research I have worked for a combination of UN agencies and NGOs. I have known a lot of interns. The more I moved from field based research into more human rights based work I increasingly met them. Without undermining your your argument Klaudjo I simply think it is one of those things that depends on how you see it. You touch the socioeconomic background of interns and there I would agree on everybody except the Europeans plus Australia and New Zealand. Young interns from and in the USA tend to be from well off families but even ‘lower middle class’ people get in sometimes. South Americans are from elites, full stop. Most Africans similarly, although I have an Ethiopian man who calls me ‘father’ who I met just after he had left the street in Addis Ababa where he had lived for a few years, went to school, university, did internships, then an MA and now has a quite senior position with UNICEF African regional office in Nairobi. I helped sponsor him through, brought him to Europe with others for the MA and saw what he had gained from his internships that was more meaningful than the formal, qualified education. The Eastern Med is all for elites. Asia is not there but I have been involved with former street and working children going through the system and learning much from internships. I placed one girl in SE Asia, but that was in a close friend’s research company in Viet Nam, however she stayed on and later joined the team there.
    What I have seen is that there are plenty of interns who are bored senseless because they do menial work. People with good degrees making coffee in the office in New York does not incentivise them. Then I have seen interns also get stuck because they did not know what to do so basically stay on and become a faceless functionary. For all of that I have seen the ones who learned a lot, choose a career path on the back of an internship whereby some do another or subsequent internships to get to know more and which field they want to be in. In western Europe they are very mixed from lower socioeconomic groups up to highly privileged backgrounds. It is the more humble ones who have sometimes become NGO ‘stars’, less frequently with the UN. However, they do not all have degrees as is commonly believed. I have known two car mechanics, a welder and a carpenter who have started as volunteers, been offered jobs and then gone up to in each case running practical tasks like logistics within their original jobs based on their work in the field. One of the mechanics singlehandedly set up a garage with teenage workers in India that now has a reputation for turning out high skilled apprentices. The NGO he was working for just wanted him to train a few people to maintain their vehicles. When one sees such things that start with internships that are meaningful then perhaps a scheme set up by the EU could start the ball rolling toward something like a short ‘probation’ then into a stipend to stay on if the intern wants to stay or the organisation wants him or her. For me, it is what interns can learn potentially that is the key to this.

    Liked by 2 people

    • These are some very valuable insights Brian. Internships (unpaid and paid ones) is a topic that one can approach from many different angles starting from the costs and benefits, SES of interns, the overrepresentation of some groups and underrepresentation of others, the learning experience, the job market and etc. Your experience is notworthy. Thank you for taking the time to comment and share your thoughts.

      Liked by 1 person

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