An internship can be an incredibly positive experience and can contribute to the economic empowerment of young people by opening new career avenues and providing an opportunity to learn new skills while making professional contacts. However, when an internship is unpaid, these objectives are severely undermined. In its 2016 World Youth Report on Youth Civic Engagement, the United Nations (UN) reported that it is not uncommon for young people to undertake back to back unpaid or low paid internships, placing them in an economically vulnerable position. The report suggests that stronger regulations and benchmarks of quality are necessary in order to prevent the economic exploitation of young people.
It is not surprising, then, that the UN itself has come under increasing criticism for offering unpaid internships across its agencies; these criticisms have intensified in recent years and many readers will be familiar with the story of the UN intern from New Zealand who, in 2015, resorted to sleeping in a tent on the shores of Lake Geneva when he was unable to cover his living costs while working as an unpaid intern.
In the face of such scrutiny, some human rights organisations and international agencies are starting to pay attention to the demands of young professionals who see internships as an important step towards a career in the human rights sector. In a live Facebook event on 6 December 2017, the International Criminal Court (ICC) responded to numerous questions regarding the issue of unpaid internships and confirmed that funding will be available for some internships, commencing in 2018; presenters stated that funding would be prioritised for candidates from developing countries and those currently underrepresented at the court. While this is a positive move, unpaid internships remain a common feature within the human rights sector. For a profession that strives to achieve equality and to tackle issues of exploitation and discrimination, the irony has not gone unnoticed.
Criticisms of unpaid internships include the fact that they result in the exclusion of young people from disadvantaged economic backgrounds, particularly those from the global south, and that the practice of unpaid internships is often used to replace junior and entry level positions.
The Fair Internship Initiative (FII) advocates for high quality internships within the UN system that are widely accessible to all potential candidates. One of FII’s main goals is to establish an ‘intern living allowance’, so that interns who do not have funding from universities or other institutions are able to cover basic living costs such as accommodation, food and travel expenses. We Pay Our Interns is a further example of the increasing push for the provision of payment and support to interns; the coalition – started in 2016 in Geneva – states that there is “no justification whatsoever that could support any structure working towards human rights that does not pay its interns”. Its Charter, which includes a commitment to the provision of a monthly stipend of a minimum of CHF 500 (which equates to just over $500 USD) per month, has so far been signed by 45 non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and human rights organisations.
While momentum is starting to build to change the practice of unpaid internships, finding such an opportunity remains difficult. Human Rights Careers has compiled a database of some of the opportunities available for paid internships in the field of human rights.