Matthew Hewitt

Naked Politics Blogger 

In recent weeks, two high-profile incidents at the United Nations have catalysed something of a debate in the media concerning the issue of unpaid internships; a debate which was sorely needed.

Perhaps the most high-profile of these stories was that of David Hyde, a 22-year old intern at the UN office in Geneva, who earned the organisation widespread condemnation after it was revealed that he had been left with no alternative but to live in a tent during his placement. More recently, a group of UN interns staged a protest in New York calling for the right to fair remuneration in line with the UN’s core values. The UN website tersely states that ‘interns are not paid’ and that ‘all costs related to travel, insurance, accommodation and living expenses’ must be borne by the interns or their sponsoring institutions. Yet, given that these highly prestigious internships typically last between two and six months and are based in some of the most expensive cities on earth, it does not take much to conclude that such a policy blatantly and unashamedly restricts opportunity for those who cannot afford to work for free and particularly for those who live in developing countries.

A spokesperson from the Quality and Fairly Remunerated Internships Initiative (QFRII), the group who organised the protest in New York, described the current system at the UN as ‘elitist and discriminatory’ and explained to me that the right to ‘equal pay for equal work’ is not only outlined in the Universal Human Rights Declaration, but is also clearly implied by two of the UN’s recently adopted Sustainable Development Goals. ‘How credible’, he asked, ‘can these Global Goals be if two of them are not fulfilled or respected by the UN itself?’ With only 5% of all UN interns hailing from the least developed countries, the answer, quite simply, is not very credible at all. The UN should be leading the way, but it is instead lagging some way behind.

The problems caused by unpaid internships are far from being solely those of the United Nations, and indeed ‘volunteer internships’ are frighteningly prevalent in the UK. Last November, The Sutton Trust shone a light on the predicament with research showing that 31% of all UK graduates working as interns were doing so without pay and that 70% of the population, much like the QFRII, believe that unpaid internships ‘are unfair because only people from wealthy families are likely to be able to work for a significant period without pay’. These findings are only made worse when you consider that the majority of these internships are, in fact, illegal. British employment legislation plainly states that anyone who is required to work for a minimum number of hours, and who is given a set of responsibilities within an organisation, excluding charities, is to be classed as a worker and consequently is legally entitled to the National Minimum Wage. Nevertheless, as any kind of search for graduate opportunities would show, several organisations are flouting these rules to the disadvantage of young people and with minimal threat of punishment from the relevant authorities. Such a system, if allowed to continue, is de facto rigged in favour of those who can afford it; graduates suffer, and business who fail to open opportunities to the entire pool of talent in the country, suffer with them.

During his ill-fated election campaign earlier this year, Ed Miliband had drawn attention to this issue by citing the research published by The Sutton Trust and subsequently pledged to put an end to long-term unpaid internships in the UK by forcing any organisation who had employed an intern for longer than a month to pay them at least minimum wage. This proposal was received well by campaign groups, a number of high-profile businesses and even in The Commons where a Ten Minute Rule Bill was proposed by a backbench Conservative MP and was carried by 189 votes to 19. These bills, however, rarely result in the generation of binding legislation and despite the swell of support behind Miliband’s proposal, no concrete steps have since been made towards addressing the problem.


Certainly, there are some drawbacks associated with the restriction of unpaid internships. For instance, it seems probable the number of internships available for graduates would fall and it is not entirely clear how valuable four weeks of experience would be for those who intern with smaller firms who are unable to pay minimum wage. These are drawbacks that must be taken into account when offering a solution, but it is clear that a solution must be offered if we are to stop businesses from bypassing employment legislation, work towards equality of opportunity regardless of socio-economic background and aid social mobility rather than hamper it. This Conservative government has been claiming, almost metronomically, that they stand for the people who want to get on in life and for those who want to better themselves. Maybe it is time that they proved it.


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Last Update: April 29, 2018